The Inevitable Hostility of Customer Separation

08 July, 2013 07:26AM ยท 3 minute read

Well before my time, a train conductor/guard would walk the train and collect fares if you were unable to collect fares from a ticket office before climbing aboard. More remote stations had no ticket office but there was always a conductor they could talk with face to face for fare assistance and payment. As trains got longer with more and more patrons and faster trains this became difficult and wishing to relieve conductors from carrying money based on safety concerns as well, ticketing was pushed off of the trains. It was now a requirement to have a valid ticket BEFORE travelling. This was the first barrier between customers and the service provider.

With crime and fear for its staffs’ safety, automatic ticket vending machines were added to remote train stations and manned stations had security glass installed. This also allowed the company to save money with less staff manning ticket offices and helped protect those staff that remained. If there was a problem with a fare however, at larger station there was always someone you could speak to who could sort out the problem. The next barrier was starting to be built.

A growing number of cities around the world have taken advantage of new internet connected technology with automatic billing and ticketing and my own stomping grounds introduced theirs in February, 2008. Each user carries a smart card that identifies them and using electronic banking the user can either automatically or manually put funds on the smart card. To encourage uptake of the new system the company puts up the price of paper tickets and makes the newer smart cards the more affordable option. Within a few years most train station ticket offices are closed and all were fitted with smart card top-up machines. It is still possible to buy a paper ticket but they cost significantly more (nearly 46% more) and the number of outlets that sell them has been drastically reduced.

The computer system that drives the smart cards in the background isn’t perfect and when there are problems (and there always are) there is now nobody that you can talk to face to face about it. The few ticket counters that are left can only check balances, add funds (if you have them) or issue paper tickets. If there is a problem with the smart card, an overcharge or funds in limbo then they can not assist you. Your only recourse is a phone call to a call centre. The next barrier is now fully in place.

Humans are personal creatures and we prefer to deal with someone face to face. As wonderful (mostly) as telephone technology is, it can’t replace face to face interaction: even video conferencing can’t (at least, not yet). I understand what it’s like dealing with an irate customer (I did work in retail for a while) and the desire to remove staff from that environment however removing customer-facing people and forcing them to negotiate over a telephone is a recipe for increased hostility. Add to that calls unresolved, long call wait times and the hostility can reach fever-pitch.

The more separation there is between the service and the customer the greater the hostility when resolving disputes.

That said, this isn’t about us (the consumers) it’s about them (the corporation). They aren’t interested in whether we would choose to use their service since the city has a single, psuedo-government run transit system. There is no competition and no fear of customer backlash so they can do pretty much whatever they want. If I need to travel I can either drive and pay to park in the city or I can take slightly cheaper public transport. No surprise then that many people are taking the only option left: walk/ride a bicycle to work.