I was in the rabbit warren of tunnels in King’s Cross station last week when a woman collapsed just ahead of me. The tunnels were soon clogged up with bad-tempered people, stepping around the few passengers who were looking after her and the American woman who had taken it upon herself to direct the human traffic.
I found myself next to one of the London Underground's round, white information points. On the rare occasions that I've pressed the information button, nobody has answered. This time, a genuine emergency, it beeped at me for what seemed like an unnecessarily long time, before saying: "Your call has been redirected to the British Transport Police." Then there were some longer beeps. Then: "No British Transport Police lines are available." Finally a crunching noise indicated that my call had ended.
Now the usual reaction to this kind of dysfunctionality -- which, let's face it, happens all the time with most of the public and private organizations we deal with over the phone -- is to wonder why they bother installing emergency buttons all over transport infrastructure if they aren’t going to staff them? But there is another question, which has not really been asked in this way before: Is there actually anyone there?
Maybe the emergency department was elsewhere when I tried to call them, having a cup of tea or in a forward planning meeting -- or maybe there actually wasn't one. Maybe, like so many other customer-facing functions, it has been excised and handed over to some other harassed official to do if they have time -- or turned into software. Maybe at the heart of these organizations, there is actually now a great emptiness, a silence interrupted only by the buzzing of computer programs and the occasional meeting of the finance function.
Welcome to the world of the Absent Corporation. It is a rather familiar phenomenon. Try contacting YouTube because your children are being harassed by online bullies, or Amazon when your goods don't arrive -- and you can find, as I have on both occasions recently, that nobody replies.
Some will have experienced the double bind used by Microsoft, perhaps we should call it Catch-23, when you try to reload your ancient version of Word, that the facility for verifying your software online no longer exists and it has to be done by phone. But hey, guess what, no phone facilities exist for that either.
We have all been there in one way or another, but we tend to think of it as an aberration, an irritating dysfunctionality. We don't assume that this is the way it has been planned. But the Absent Corporation phenomenon is most visible to most of us in the slow disappearance of customer service as organizations, public and private, convince themselves that online, five-point ratings is an effective substitute.
This neglect of customers is a result of our collective failure to police the emerging monopolies, public and private
You can see it as corporate functions shrink down to finance, with everything else outsourced or replaced with algorithms. And as customer-facing staff are transformed into security personnel, whose task is to prevent customers messing with the machinery. (I recently rescued an old lady from some train doors only to be bawled at by the platform staff for obstructing them.)
This great silence, this neglect of customers, especially when anything goes wrong, is partly a byproduct of the financialization and virtualization of reality. But most of all, it is a result of our collective failure to police the emerging monopolies, public and private -- from Amazon and Google to Southern Rail -- which have so little economic pressure to keep customers loyal.
It is both a symptom and cause of rising inequality -- in this case between customers and the organizations that serve them only in theory. In reality they serve themselves. And there lies the clue to tackling the problem: make them smaller. But we have to start just by naming the phenomenon. There they are all around us: the Absent Corporations.
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Posted: 2017-03-12 @ 9:38pm PT
Great Post! In today's ultra-competitive world, it's the companies that manage customer relationships the best that are more likely to be successful than those that don't. That's why implementations of modern CRM system like Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics have skyrocketed in recent years.
Posted: 2017-03-07 @ 7:09am PT
This is a really interesting perspective. I've never heard the term "absent corporations" before but it makes a lot of sense. I think a big issue is also the absent human element. Corporations forget to leverage all of the years of human experience earned by their tenured employees. I uncovered some interesting trends in my research about this.