Why does our service economy offer such bad service?

How do you get a call centre to do anything for you that involves change, or taking responsibility? Robert Skidelsky and Nan Craig on the downsides of our overdependence on a service economy.

Britain is a service economy with a lot of lousy services. The paradox is easily explainable. Service and cost-cutting are contradictions in terms. Good services are intrinsically expensive because they require a high ratio of labour to product; hence the old view that services could not be automated. Yet the main aim of those who run our service economy is to cut the costs represented by human labour as much and as fast as they can.
 
The view that services are automationproof has been disproved. Think of the labour-saving devices in the home – vacuum cleaners, washing machines, dishwashers – that have reduced the burden of domestic drudgery and created leisure time that in the past only the rich enjoyed. Think of cash dispensers, of online shopping. In all these cases, machines provide the services that people once did – and usually more conveniently.
 
On the other hand, think of call centres, which offer services according to automated formulae. In this case, it is not that people are being replaced by machines but that they are being programmed to act like machines. This enables them to process a greater number of calls per unit of time.
 
Recently, NHS Direct announced that it will pull out of contracts to deliver the new NHS 111 helpline. The details are complicated but the gist is that contracts to run the helpline have been awarded by competitive tender, with bidders offering the service at the lowest cost. Cost reduction is secured by reducing the number of doctors and nurses per operator, with operators relying on callcentre scripts and algorithms to process calls: exactly the opposite of what most people think of as a good service. Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, has spoken of nurses being replaced by computers and of an urgent need “to get more clinicians back in the front line handling calls”. He is right.
 
Try changing your mobile telephone provider, reporting a lost credit card or making almost any attempt to contact your bank, and you are likely to enter a Kafkaesque world of customer frustration. The recent attempt by our office to upgrade a phone package is a case in point. We were moved back and forth between the old supplier, the new supplier and the delivery service, none of which seemed to have the faintest idea what the others were doing.
 
What distinguishes services that can be automated successfully from those that can’t? The answer is the nature of the need: the less complicated the need, the more efficiently it can be satisfied without human intervention. The economist William Baumol identified services that resisted commodification, for whichthe human touch was essential and quality was correlated with the amount of human labour dedicated to their production. He gave the performing arts as an example, but the analysis can be extended to such services as teaching and medical care.
 
Amazon, for instance, works well when it allows people to order, quickly and conveniently, an item that they already want. Its recommendation system, however, is based on algorithms rather than the knowledge and intuition of a good bookseller. That is why bestsellers sell more and everything else sells less. Automated services fit and thereby create products that can be standardised, because an automated system can’t cope with anything else.
 
In the rich countries of the west – in some more than others – personal service has fallen victim to a kind of Fordism or its successor, scientific management, which dissects tasks into tiny individual units. Scientific management, developed by the American mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor in the late 19th century, is the foundation of modern techniques such as the use of strict call-centre scripts, which aim to create algorithms that automate the human element of work as much as possible.
 
Adam Smith foresaw this development in manufacturing 250 years ago.He gave the example of the pin factory, in which “the important business of making a pin is . . . divided into about 18 distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands”. The result of this “division of labour” was a tremendous increase in the productivity of the factory.
 
Cost-cutting in services proceeds by a false analogy with the pin factory. In all services that can be automated, part of every process is delegated to a team that inhabits a separate silo. No team is able to carry out more than its tiny element of the process; as a result, from the first moment you contact a company, you have to choose which team to talk to (“Press one if you are a business customer; press two if you are a personal customer; press three if you wish you were dead”).
 
Then, if you have a query that is even slightly complicated, at least the first three people you speak to will probably not be able to help. No one has an overview of how the whole thing works and no one has any power to cut through the undergrowth, because each person is in control of only a tiny patch of the service. As no one person or team knows what anyone else does or who any of the customers is, all information has to be stored centrally; if something is “not in the system” or if the system has broken down, it’s a dead end.
 
As the call-centre worker has never met you before, he or she will have little sympathy and no relationship to draw on; because they will almost certainly never speak to you again, there is no incentive for them to be helpful if your problem can’t be fixed within the formula. From their perspective, they are having to deal with customers who are irate because of events that the service provider has no control over and no responsibility for.
 
As ever, there are people with a sense of service, but whose hands are tied by the architecture of the system that they inhabit. There are also, inevitably, a few people who hate customers and are terrible at their job. They suit the system well because they are never required to be innovatively helpful and, if something goes beyond their remit, they can happily transfer you to someone else or simply tell you that what you want is impossible and ring off.
 
Eventually, someone at one of the call centres we contacted in our efforts to upgrade our telephone agreed that the system does not work very well. He sounded unhappy about it but said, “That’s the way the world works.” He is almost right. That is now how much of the world works. It hasn’t worked this way for long but it is no longer possible to imagine a world in which contacting any large company by telephone would not involve speaking to a different person every time you called.
 
No one is made happier by the system except, perhaps, the owners of the cost-cutting companies, who can pay for properly personal services for themselves out of hugely enhanced profits. As the cost of idiosyncracy rises, what used to be thought of as personal services can be afforded only by the rich. The so-called concierge services make a great play of being adapted to individual requirements. Yet, like the “bespoke” tailors of old, they mainly serve the rich. If you have £100,000 on deposit, your bank gives you a “premium account manager”; if you don’t, you go through the call-centre system.
 
Beyond the nightmare for the consumer is the nightmare for the producer. Smith rightly understood that the division of labour, though good for productivity, was degrading for the worker. The effect on the “hands” of knowing nothing about the manufacture of pins except what was required for their specific tasks was, he said, to make them “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”.
 
The same deskilling effect operates in the service economy. It has been suggested that part of the problem with call centres is that the people who staff them are uneducated and badly trained. However, the problem is that the system in which they work prevents them from taking responsibility for their products. Taking away the ability of a callcentre worker to help people doesn’t just frustrate the caller but destroys the satisfaction that comes from solving someone’s problem. It’s the deprivation of this satisfaction that makes the work of the operator both boring and emotionally stressful, rather than something that has an intrinsic motivation. The call-centre operator is a contemporary example of the artisan deprived of the pleasure of workmanship.
 
There is an even more dire implication. If profit maximisation requires human beings with machine-like qualities, why not get rid of the people altogether? Machines don’t need wages. Call centres, like factories, will soon be staffed entirely by machines; all checkout services at supermarkets will also be done by machines; the specialist knowledge of taxi drivers will be replaced by satnav; there will eventually be driverless cars. Machines will “talk” to each other. Except for a few specialists to make and fine-tune the machines and others to meet the continued demand of the wealthy for personal services, the human race will no longer be required for work. It will have to find something else to do.
 
Robert Skidelsky is a cross-bench peer and emeritus professor of political economy at the University of Warwick Nan Craig is the publications director of the Centre for Global Studies.
Artwork by Nick Hayes.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Coders for Corbyn
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Can emojis win elections?

Jeremy Corbyn has claimed his campaign's use of technology would be the "path to victory" in 2020. But can emojis play a meaningful part? 

When photographic campaign badges were first unleashed in 1860, a Facebook commenter posted on Abraham Lincoln’s wall: “What is this? Today’s youth are doomed” and then, a moment later, “You call this news?”*

It might be tempting to react in a similar way to the fact that Jeremy Corbyn emoji – or rather, Jeremoji – are now a thing. Small digital stickers of the flat-capped Labour leader expressing joy and sadness might seem like the End Of Serious Political Campaigning As We Know It, but are they really that different from the multitude of deft and daft political campaign buttons throughout history?

Well, yes. Because there will be a marrow.

Beyond the marrow, however, Jeremoji aren’t actually that revolutionary. Before Kim Kardashian crashed the App Store with the 9,000 downloads a second of her Kimoji in December 2015, we here at the New Statesman created a much-needed Yvette Cooper emoji. Around the same time, Bernie Sanders supporters released BerniemojiThe slightly-less pleasing to the ear Hillarymoji were also unveiled by Hillary Clinton campaigners two months ago, though none of these apps were officially endorsed by their respective candidates.

“We’re not affiliated, we’re totally independent,” says Gregory Dash from Coders for Corbyn, the group behind Jeremoji, and a wider online volunteer toolkit for Corbyn supporters. “A lot of us have social links with the campaign and we ran ideas past them and got feedback but as an organisation we’re totally independent and all volunteers.”

Dash reveals that a variety of professional and amateur artists contributed to the emoji and that unfortunately, as the marrow design is currently being finalised, it won’t be in the first version of the app. Once the app has been approved by Google Play and the App Store, it should be available to the public in the coming weeks.

“Mainly they’re just fun but we’re also hoping we’ll be able to communicate some of the main message of Jeremy’s campaign,” says Dash.

But are Dash and other developers misguided in their attempts to promote sexagenarian politicians via a communication tool favoured by teens? Hillary Clinton has already been mocked for her attempts to capture the youth vote via memes, and has proven on multiple occasions that trying to be “down with the kids” can backfire. Corbyn’s own digital manifesto was met with scorn by some yesterday.

“To be very honest, the emojis are pretty cringy,” says Max Rutter, a 17-year-old from Oxford. “I know that they are targeted towards teens but politics isn't something most teens talk about on social media, and these emojis could only be used in a political conversation. Corbyn doesn't need emojis to get teens on his side, he just needs to stick to his guns and keep telling it like it is.”

A 2013 London School of Economics study on Youth Participation In Democratic Life supports Max’s assertions. The final report found that although in theory young people wanted politicians to use social media more, in practice it led to more negative perceptions of politicians and “an increased perception of the gap between political elites and the young.” Moreover, teens exposed to a social media campaign were less likely to vote than those who only received political flyers.

Jeremoji, then, may not ultimately capture the youth vote, and nor are they likely to make lifelong Conservatives pause and say, “On second thoughts, yes. This Corbyn chap is the man for me.” So what will they achieve?

“We’re hoping to do some emojis around Corbyn’s ten pledges and allow people to share them that way,” says Dash. The app already contains emojis affiliated with the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, a society seeking justice for miners after the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984. Dash also hopes to get emojis supporting the No More Blacklisting campaign and Save Our Steel.

“We want to have it so you go to the Orgreave campaign and you click the emoji and it will give you a little bit of information about the campaign as well,” Dash says. “Emojis then become a tool to communicate all these different campaigns that are going on. There are amazing things going on that the wider Labour membership may not know about.”

Coders for Corbyn seek the approval of each of these campaigns before creating the emoji, as they don’t want to seem as if they’re exploiting campaigns to make themselves look better “like Owen Smith did”. But despite their current affiliation with Corbyn, the group plan to rebrand as Coders for Labour after the leadership election.

“I’m not sure there would be the same demand for Owen Smith emojis, but we'd definitely still be producing Labour themed emojis for people to use,” says Dash, when I ask what he’d do if Smith won.

Dash tells me when iOS10 launches in the autumn, emojis will be available at three times their current size, and will be more like stickers. This means they can communicate complicated messages from various campaigns, and may also lose any potential stigma associated with the word “emoji”. In the late 20th century, campaign buttons like Lincoln’s were replaced by cheaper disposable label stickers. It makes sense for these in turn to be replaced by digital stickers. Even if emoji can’t win elections, they may still prove powerful in raising awareness.

The UK’s currently most used emoji is the despairing crying face. Personally, I see no problem with it becoming a marrow.

*May not strictly be true 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.