I keep seeing signs, these days, of corporate moral over-reach. Take direct debits, for example. Has anybody noticed lately how power suppliers, insurance companies, city councils – all of the organisations we have to deal with when paying for normal household services – have switched to direct debits?
It’s an insidious shift which has happened in the last ten years or so. And why is it insidious? Because the older direct credits were under your control. You credited them. Whereas a direct debit gives the corporate full authority to dip into your bank account and take whatever they want. You have no power to stop it – you have to ask them to do so.
From the viewpoint of the corporate it’s a great system. They get their money, no matter what. From the viewpoint of your rights? Not so much. And sure, most of the companies that do it are ‘honest’, insofar as corporates are. If they’ve over-dipped into your account, they’ll usually refund the difference.
But it’s up to you to make that happen – which brings up the other new business model. In the ‘old days’ – as in, about five years ago – if you wanted to deal with your bank, insurance company or whatever, you’d go in to their office. Sure, you’d usually end up standing in line for ten or twenty minutes. But you’d deal with a human, face to face.
These days, apparently because ‘people want it’, you have to make a phone call. This gets you to a robot offering options. Once you’ve selected one, you’re put into a ‘priority queue’ because hey, this corporate values its customers. And you wait. And wait. And wait.
Eventually a human answers, often in ways that make clear English isn’t their first language. But can they help you? Of course not. They’re working from a script. Anything you want – I guarantee it – won’t be on their script. But the script tells them to block, fob off and otherwise obstruct taking anything further.
Right now I have an issue with my website service provider, who played hob with their own accounting system by creating a new subsidiary to handle hosting, then cocked up the billing. I paid for one month last year – I can prove it with documents – but the new subsidiary doesn’t know about it. I had to pay again to get the service continued. My first call alone took me an hour to get through their robo-system and hold queue, only to find myself going in circles with the person at the other end. Two months later I rang back and got a different person, I was told the enquiry had been bucked up to the manager – who’d sat on it. A couple of weeks back I approached them and suggested that, if they didn’t address the issue, I’d consider it a dispute and take them to court. That prompted an instant reply – but not a resolution. They simply said they were ‘looking into’ the problem. Since then? Nothing.
Oh, I did get a robo-email asking me how they’d done.
How do these companies get away with it? You need them more than they need you. And you can’t threaten to go to a competitor, because all companies have gone to the ‘phone frustration’ model and bot responses.
All this has been made possible by technology, but to me it’s also philosophical; it’s driven, ultimately, by the need to make a profit, which corporates usually do by cutting their staff costs. Closing offices and out-sourcing their phone system to a contractor in a low-wage economy has become standard. Neo-liberal de-regulation facilitated it. These days Atlas doesn’t so much shrug as fart in the face of the poor consumer, who’s then left to bear the cost – in time, frustration and so forth – of corporate policy in which customers are clearly the bottom priority.
To me it’s another of many disturbing signs that the neo-liberal experiment of the 1980s hasn’t merely failed, it’s entering its end game. People are tired of being disempowered and dispossessed by a system that has served to transfer wealth and power in one direction only. And I hope things don’t get ugly.
Well, uglier than they already are.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021