Thought for the day:Bring back people

Hard-hitting IT columnist Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.Are we deceiving ourselves over...

Hard-hitting IT columnist Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.Are we deceiving ourselves over technology? Does it live up to its promise of work all the time rather than some of the time? By this I mean 99.999% rather than 95% of the time.

I'm in danger of becoming a secret Luddite. I'm starting to envy the few societies that remain firmly offline; whose notion of advanced telecommunications is ownership of a hollowed-out coconut, a piece of string and two tin cans.

You may recall my taking a shot at BT last week for wasting customers' time by not publishing its new dial-up Internet number on its Web site.

Then there's Barclays Bank, whose online service I rely on. Today, after 45 minutes attempting to access my bank account which, in turn, continued to hang and drop out, I called Barclays Helpline.

The very pleasant young lady on the phone told me that the system, which has "four legs", has been" up and down" all week and is only working on two legs (servers?) at the moment.

This explains why the system keeps timing out but it doesn't explain why Barclays hasn't put up a simple "We are experiencing difficulties with the service" message on its homepage.

My experience of IT in both the public and private sector is broadly reflective of a mass plate-spinning exercise. Responsibility appears to exist vaguely with "the system". When one plate wobbles, unless the fix is almost instantaneous, the others start to crash to the ground in a slow and almost predictable ripple effect.

TV ads tell us that "e" solves everything. It's a magic dot that takes a BT or a Barclays Bank or a government and transforms it into a slick and efficient virtual business, managed by quietly humming racks of machines instead of people.

When things go wrong, the efficiencies of the system which, invariably, involve running with a skeleton staff, mean that all the effort is focused on attempting to fix the problem and little, if any, effort is directed towards the end-user or customer.

Because the Internet serves as a wall between the customer and the service provider, there's a strong temptation to hide behind it when things go wrong, rather than confront the urgency of a customer service problem directly, as you have to do in the real world.

Far too little thought is devoted to the customer relationship element of an increasingly online society.

Some businesses have solved this problem, but many more show little evidence of thinking about the customer element or experience when things go wrong.

Most companies will have a nominated "first-aider", but it's highly unlikely that they will have anyone responsible for dealing with the customer side of the equation when critical systems fail.

E-business is much more than machines and expensive software. It's a completely different commercial philosophy that should, in theory, put customers at the front of any strategy and not relegate them to the status of an expensive and under-resourced inconvenience.

In the constant drive towards profitability, there's a real danger of society embracing a "lose a person, buy a cheap box" approach to business. When you lose people, their initiative and sense of responsibility go with them.

Big companies talk a great deal about online customer relationship management and experience, but talk is cheap. The evidence suggests that talking about the challenge is one way of avoiding doing much about it when systems or procedures fail.

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Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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