I think the rot set in well over a generation ago. I'm old enough to remember the good old days when, needing petrol, all you needed to do was turn in to the station forecourt, wind down the driver's window, chat to the petrol assistant – while he was probably wiping your windscreen – telling him how many gallons you wanted – and sit tight. Only when all was done and dusted, did you have to get out of the car and settle up. The good old days indeed.
The principle was a simple one. Whoever had something to sell – no matter what its nature – employed someone else to do the selling. It was called customer service, and thousands upon thousands of us were employed as clerks, shop-assistants, secretaries, or office-workers, to provide it. Employers, the employed, and customers worked happily together. So what happened?
Someone, somewhere – some bright spark of a business guru – looked at the standard business set-up I've described. Okay, it was working well and his business – like business in general – was doing well. But how much bigger would its profit be if the threesome of employer, employed, and customer could be reduced to a twosome? And how could that outcome be achieved? Simply by dissolving the distinction between the customer and the employed.
Looking back, I'm amazed at how quickly the self-service petrol pump took over. In no time at all car drivers were not only paying the oil companies for their petrol, but doing all the work of obtaining it: drive in, get out, unscrew the petrol cap, find the hose and push the correct button, watch the quantity indicator tick over – and hopefully stop at the required amount – then remember to replace the hose and refit the petrol cap. Then all that remains is to pay for the privilege. What is astonishing is the meekness of the motoring public in accepting this disappearance of customer service. With soaring profits, the oil companies could hardly have believed their luck. And the guy who used to provide the service? He probably lost his job.
What is the relevance of all this to today's world? The answer is provided by something I recently saw on Facebook: 'Never self-check-out,' it boldly announced, 'You are not a store employee…Stop being one for free.' The point is that in recent years in an extraordinary and still growing range of contexts, it has become the norm for the customer not only to pay, but also do most of the work. In almost every kind of business or trade, the pattern is the same: the customer has become an unpaid employee.
The widest open door to this development has been what used to be called the new technology. Not being online is being left behind – a relic of the old way of doing things. Recently I was in the refurbished Queen Street station in Glasgow, trying to buy a ticket to Edinburgh with my rail card. I was confronted by a battery of machines which made no mention of rail cards – and a slogan proclaiming 'Paper tickets are so 2017.' Quite so – that puts me in my place. (Happily I was finally able to find a small ticket office, managed by actual people, in a nearby side street.)
The point remains however. The online, machine-driven way is the smart way. Anything else is old-fashioned, out of date – and preferring it defines you as a hopeless fuddy-duddy. Nonetheless I see no reason to go quietly. A London theatre wants me to buy a ticket – online, of course. But does that give it the right to tell me I have five minutes within which to complete the transaction? Inevitably I'm not smart enough to pull it off, and remain ticketless. Okay, I'll call the theatre and speak to someone. But that proves to be impossible – a box-office telephone number is no longer available.
Soon afterwards I try to get a ticket for a concert in London – once again online. This time all seems to go smoothly. I click 'Proceed to check-out,' and provide all the details of my Visa Debit card. What immediately flashes up is 'your card is out of date' – despite the fact that it is valid until 09/21. Once again, I give up.
To my mind, human beings interact with each other better than with machines; live voices are much more efficient than bodiless, recorded ones. What we are constantly told is a faster, more efficient way of doing things, over and over again, proves to be exactly the opposite. Asking the simplest of questions on my PC, I'm confronted with the usual rigmarole: 'What is my user name?' (Is that me?) 'What is my email address?' (Surely you already have that.) And, most dismaying of all, 'What is my password?' (I didn't know I had one.) 'Forgotten your password' simply leads to further incomprehension.
I know I'll be told that the world has changed and I just need to get on with it. But surely it's worth asking whether particular changes are for the better. The maintenance of individual customer service is a cause worth fighting for, and its preservation is all the more important at a time when automation in all its forms is eroding the job market. If it is no longer ridiculous to consider instituting a four-day working week – or of thinking in terms of providing a basic living wage for us all, then it is perfectly reasonable to demand a return to a traditional level of customer service. Never self-check-out. Exactly.