The British seem to think the U.K.’s hopeless at customer service but that the U.S. has mastered the art. Even Wild Thing, when a British web site has chewed her up and spat her out unserved and turning the air blue, is prone to believing this.
Me? I’m not convinced.
Just before we left the U.S., For Your Convenience signs had started appearing in stores. Business letters threw the phrase around as if it would banish all complaints. These say things like “For your convenience, this store will be closed on Saturday.” “For your convenience, your water will be turned off between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. next Wednesday.”
Whatever we’re doing, we’re doing it for you. Now that’s customer service.
But we don’t have to travel to the U.S. to find an example. All Wild Thing and I had to do was sit at our kitchen table and get chewed up by our U.S. passport renewal forms. I’m not sure we’re exactly customers in this relationship, but we do get charged for the privilege so I think it’s a fair example. In my mind, there isn’t much difference between government bureaucracy and corporate bureaucracy. They’re equally impenetrable, although they tend to set off different political resonances in people.
I wrote a bit about this experience already, [https://notesfromtheuk.com/2015/12/04/adaptation-and-pig-headedness/] but the part that needs repeating came up in the post’s comments section, and (you do have a life, don’t you?) you may not have memorized every word of it: The only way the embassy will accept renewal forms is if you send them with a private carrier. And not just any private carrier, it has to be one specific private carrier. You can’t send them through the mail, even though it’s perfectly reliable; you can’t use a different private carrier; you can’t do it online, even though you fill out the form there; you can’t drop them off in person, even if you live next door; and you can’t wrap them around a rock and throw them through the window, no matter how tempting the idea gets. You can only use that one service.
Is it run by somebody’s cousin or spouse or campaign donor? Call me a cynic (or a New Yorker, which at heart I always will be and which is more or less the same thing), but I can’t help thinking it must be.
How does this square with the American religious belief that competition is good because it drives the price down and the quality of service up? Well, as it turns out we only worship at that church when it suits us, and in this case it doesn’t. Monopoly is more efficient today, so shut up and arrange for a pickup, and if the system burns extra fuel and adds to global warming because the carrier doesn’t normally operate in your village, that’s more efficient too.
I will admit that the web site worked flawlessly. It was a little intimidating, but even I couldn’t screw it up, and I’ve seldom met a form I couldn’t fill out wrong. But when I printed out my completed form, it came with four pages of instructions that ended with a paperwork reduction act statement, which I can’t resist the temptation to quote in full:
“Public reporting burden for this collection of information is estimated to average 40 minutes per response, including the time required for searching existing data sources, gathering the necessary data, providing the information and/or documentation required, and reviewing the final collection. You do not have to supply this information unless this collection displays a currently valid OMB control number. If you have comments on the accuracy or burden estimate and/or recommendations for reducing it, please send them to…” and a mailing address follows.
As a way of reducing paperwork, I just love this: an extra paragraph, addressed, as far as I can make out, to the public, although there’s no way your average member of the public can understand it—and I say that as someone who used to copy edit a low-budget hunting and fishing magazine, which gave me samurai-level training in turning murky prose into something approaching human language. The first sentence means, “It should take you 40 minutes to fill this out and gather the information you need.” After that, you’re on your own. What’s an OMB number and how would I know if the collection displays a valid one? What collection are we talking about exactly? What information don’t I have to supply and how do I renew my passport if I don’t supply it? And why—why, why, why—would I care that their time estimate is unrealistic? It is, since we had to submit photos in a format that’s not commonly used in Britain, but even if we lived in the U.S. it would take time to get photos printed in the right format. What, though, would make me want to tell them all that? What would change if I did?
Nothing and nothing.
But then the paragraph isn’t written with an eye toward getting anyone to do anything. It’s an extra paragraph written because someone was told to reduce paperwork, so here that someone is, proving that it’s been done. Yes! More paper in the name of less! That’s what I call customer service.
By the way, since we filled the forms out online, there’s no real need to print off the instructions—we could just as easily read or ignore them online. But once you hit Print, out they tumble, reducing the world’s paperwork by adding four extra pages.