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How customer services disappeared

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 organisations 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 organisations, 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.

‘Try contacting Amazon when your goods don’t arrive and you find, as I have, that nobody replies.’ Photograph: Mike Segar / Reuters/Reuters

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 organisations, 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 financialisation and virtualisation 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 organisations 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.

The Absent Corporation: Why big companies don’t want to see us, by David Boyle and Lindsay Mackie, is published by the New Weather Institute