Get your hands off my phone. Or why companies can’t feel.

Air Canada has a policy that a flight isn’t considered “late” until it’s more than 15 minutes late.

As I flew to Copenhagen last week from Charlottetown, a trip that required 6 flights there and back, I thought a lot about that policy. And I realize that it says a lot about how Air Canada thinks of their service and their passengers.

To Air Canada, a delay of 15 minutes or less must feel “good enough.” Perhaps they even consider it a miracle to make all their systems run smoothly enough to guide a plane from gate to gate inside such a small window.

What they forget, though, is that to a traveler, 15 minutes is the equivalent of about 2 hours. Travel is stressful. There’s not only the “the plane might fall out of the sky” problem, but there’s the cramped space, the worry about the luggage, the stale air in the terminal and on the plane. When you’re waiting for a flight you’re worried about where you’re going to sit: will the seat recline, will there be enough room for your luggage, will your seat be right beside the toilet? And when the flight looks like it’s not going to be on time, you start to worry about the meetings you’re going to miss, the rental car they’re going to give to someone else, whether you’ll make your hotel on time.

All of this is amplified greatly when it’s a 7 or 8 hour flight you’re waiting for. In fact I’d hazard a guess that the most stressful part of flying, for many, is the wait at the gate.

So while Air Canada thinks to itself “hey, 15 minutes isn’t so bad — we don’t even need to tell the passengers about it,” the collected grief of their passengers, watching the minutes tick by, festers.

Rental car companies have a similar problem. I seldom get anything close to the car I reserve on rental company websites. I once reserved a Toyota Corolla from Alamo and they tried to give me a Chevy Astro. I settled for a Malibu.

It seems that rental companies think that if they can give you a vehicle with four wheels, they’ve done their job. They don’t seem to understand that this vehicle is going to be akin to a tiny rolling home for a bit of my life, and that it does matter what it looks like, that it doesn’t smell like smoke, that it uses fuel wisely, and so on. In the car rental world the cars are inventory, and so one car is, it seems, pretty much like any other.

I used to think that this sort of thinking, this sort of policy, was the result of intentional maliciousness on the part of companies, that they actually set out to be callous and unthinking. Or at the very least that their systems were simply broken.

But then this morning I stopped in at the local Rogers Wireless mobile phone dealer. I had a question about accessing the Internet with my phone and I thought they could help. I set my phone on the counter to demonstrate that I was an actual customer with a real phone.

And they picked my phone up and started to play with it. And then they passed it around the office to have others take a look. They looked at my phone — and this is easy to understand — as a simple piece of technology that needed fixing. They see a million phones a day, and this was just another one.

What they didn’t think about is that my phone is a piece of very personal technology to me. I have pictures of Catherine and Oliver on it. My email. My phone book. I’ve used that phone to talk to Catherine from across the ocean and to say goodnight to Oliver. I sat on a terrace in France and talked to my colleagues in America on that phone. I used it to find a hotel in Bourges and to give my Dad a call before leaving for Denmark.

Passing around my phone like a piece of broken inventory leaves all of that out of the equation. And it made me feel just like I feel with the car rental company thoughtlessly offers me a Chevy Astro or Air Canada runs a late flight and doesn’t tell me because in their world it’s not really late.

And putting all these together I realized that companies are systems, and customers, cars, flights, and phones necessarily become abstractions in a system as large as Air Canada or Hertz or Rogers.

Air Canada can’t feel bad about making me worried that I’ll miss an important meeting. Budget can’t worry about whether I get a Cavalier or an Accord. Rogers has millions of phones in millions of hands: their system can’t treat a phone like a treasured personal instrument because that would simply gum up the system.

So it’s not that companies are malicious, it’s not that their systems are broken, it’s that they operate on a scale that, of necessity, treats passengers the same as flights, cars, and phones: as objects to be handled, shuffled, repaired, flown, scheduled.

A Chevy Astro or an A-320 doesn’t have feelings, doesn’t get worked up about where it is or how it’s being treated, so why should a person?.

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a revelation to me, but it does.


Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on June 24, 2005 - 15:24 Permalink

A sub-revelation: I used words like “they” and “their” when talking about companies, the same words I would use if talking about a group of people, but not the words I would use to talk about a computer or a bar of soap. Or a system. How ironic: I write about the inability of companies to treat me like a person but as I do so, I treat them like people.

Ken Williams's picture
Ken Williams on June 24, 2005 - 15:30 Permalink

Did they answer your question about your phone and the internet?

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on June 24, 2005 - 15:36 Permalink

No, they said “call customer service.”

oliver's picture
oliver on June 24, 2005 - 15:50 Permalink

You addressing a corporation as “they” is part and parcel of the hurt or offence you feel. I think the antidote and/or drug most people take involves viewing the institution as faulty in design, though operated by people who are generally doing their best under the circumstances. So we say of Air Canada that “it” is a lousy airline, despite how hard some of “them” may be trying. A documentary film out recently took the behavior of corporations as if the corporations were people and asked psychiatrists to comment. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I think basically they commented that they behaved like psychopaths and would be locked up if they were people.

Kevin O's picture
Kevin O on June 24, 2005 - 17:18 Permalink

Pete, your point brings up the other side of the question. How would companies such as these go about the ~concept~ of, say, treating your phone as a personal piece of technology? And, even if they managed to embody the concept, and successfully develop internal practices (policy) to meet higher service expectations, how would they go about holding the line on (ad-hoc ‘don”t give a damn’- type) policy drift?

More and more, those who serve customers rarely know how to run something. They know less and less about what they are actually doing and consequently why. What they know is how to manage systems that run things. Often they don’t even know how to manage systems, they simply respond to them. This divorces workers from the ability to understand even the basic principles of an organization.

Commonly technology and systems drive the customer experience, not the other way around, leaving improvement all but impossible even if one can somehow manage to shift understanding of “improvement” so that it includes those things you mention.

While I whole-heartedly agree with your points I conjure an image of Sisyphus.

oliver's picture
oliver on June 24, 2005 - 18:30 Permalink

In the imaginary olden days of good parenting, schooling in civility, a universal sense of personal responsibility and an ever watchful ever judgmental deity, plus everybody speaking in an upperclass English accent, one would never dream of picking up another person’s cell phone, let alone passing it to someone else without first soliciting their kind indulgence. Nowadays if you pay a premium to fly first class or shop at a luxury franchize, I suppose some of that extra profit goes into simply teaching workers to kiss ass, and they are paid well enough or under enough supervision or are so into the culture of luxury that they do it. Some boutiquey places seem to have allowed and/or encouraged managers to think creatively and develop specific procedures of ass kissing that may not exist out in the world at large (cell phones are so new your mother probably taught you no rules about them, and so it’s left to the retailers and Miss Manners). Regarding service at McDonalds I suppose a customer just has to hope for the best, and sometimes he or she gets it. Any other questions?

Kevin O's picture
Kevin O on June 25, 2005 - 01:33 Permalink

Naa, just the same ones… the point is there is no parallel for Miss Manners in global commerce and when, more and more, what is known is held (with some verve it seems) to the barest’t minimum of what ~has~ to be known to keep getting a cheque every week, and the daily quotient of “couldn’t possibly care less” situations make it all but impossible to create a better customer experience Even If the prime focus of service was from the customer perspective rather than the current modality of treating customers as little more than fickle or tempermental inventory. I don’t blame the employees, they simply take the path of least resistance and corporate leadership can make all the difference — but in some businesses (more all the time) the geeks and machines run the show eliminating any other corporate perspective entirely.

You’re right though, to improve the situation costs and prices will generally rise.

Olle Jonsson's picture
Olle Jonsson on June 25, 2005 - 19:41 Permalink

In the case of the phone being shown around the office: creeps.

But, those employees’ behaviour is reflected in corporate policy. We never own “our” mobile phones (as we Euros call cell phones). They are produced and sold “as products”, but you can’t mod them to any notable degree, and I heard that the carriers [aka “the companies running the show”] make it hard to use any custom, fiddle-friendly software with them. Shortly: these treasured artifacts are never ours.

OK, I have yet to make a point, but I guess as long as these conditions prevail, it’ll be hard for new mobile technology to become hacker-popular. Folks who program tend to want to own things themselves.

Clark's picture
Clark on June 26, 2005 - 05:03 Permalink

I have flown the Bangkok to Taipei route with EVA air about 20 times in the past year and a half. During that time without fail the boarding time has been at least 20 minutes later than scheduled. Over time I learned to compensate by arriving at least 15 minutes “late” for boarding but not everyone has the benefit of experience. You can see the result of this in peoples actions and in the stress on their faces. It’s extremely uncomfortable for people for many of the reasons you have stated. People in this part of the world have a hard time queuing under the best of circumstances factor in this added stress and the simple act of getting on the plane becomes not much different than watching frightened cattle race through an open gate.

Why can’t they simply change the advertised boarding time to reflect the reality that they never board on time?