Ah, yes, that’s why I always say I hate analogies.

For a person who bangs on almost every day about how I hate analogies, I certainly do use an awful lot of them.

The reason I hate them is that I think that more often than not, they get in the way of what you want to say.  You have a brief, for example, to do a press ad saying that such-and-such a financial service is easy to use.  Using a boring old analogy, you say it’s as easy as a knife through butter.  You show a picture of a knife cutting through a block of butter.  People are supposed to think about your financial service, but actually they think about butter. They think about the diet they’re supposed to be on. They wonder whether butter is actually better or worse for you than Flora.  It occurs to them that putting a knife through butter actually isn’t all that easy when the knife is blunt and the butter is straight from the fridge.  They rckon the butter in your picture looks quite hard, actually, come to think about it.  And is that a special butter knife in the picture, or just an ordinary small table knife?  I’ve always thought we should have a special butter knife, but we never have.  Will there be any in the John Lewis sale?  When does that start, anyway?

And so on and so on. 

To be fair, I’m particularly opposed to the use of analogies in the headlines and visuals of press ads, on the grounds that they usually relegate what you really want to say to the body copy which no-one ever reads.  In conversation, or just in ordinary writing like this, they don’t hog the limelight quite so badly.

But in hindsight, I think – coming to the point – that in my last-but-one blog entry, that very long analogy about my trip to Scotland was thoroughly unhelpful, getting badly in the way of what I reckon is one of the more interesting and thought-worthy questions I’ve raised in this thing.

Which, without any trace of analogy, metaphor or even simply example, was this:  how good should an ordinary mass-market service be?

Should it be very good?  Should ordinary mass-market customers be delighted by whatever the service attributes happen to be – the speed of response, the personal treatment, the flexibility or whatever?  Should they find it acceptable – not so bad that they’re angry and resentful, but nothing to write home about?  Or should it be really shoddy – slow, unhelpful, customer-unfriendly, reducing a significant proportion to tears of impotent fury?

I know, it’s easy to dismiss this as a pretty silly question.  For one thing, what do I mean by “should”?   “Should” in the commercial sense, of what the service provider needs to do to maintain a successful business?   Or “should” in some kind of moral sense, to do with the responsibility organisations have when they serve the public?

I don’t think that the commercial meaning of the word “should” is going to help us very much.  The commercial pressures to deliver excellent service to mass-market consumers are much weaker than one might imagine.  For one thing, many of the organisations involved aren’t commercial.  (The worst and unfriendliest day-to-day service of all, by a million miles, is provided by the NHS.)  Some which are commercial have monopolies in their individual customer relationships.  (Millions of poor sods flying to various parts of Europe have no alternative to Ryanair.)  And even when organisations are commercial and in competitive markets – banks, utilities companies, mobile phone providers – consumers tend to assume, usually rightly, that they’re all as bad as each other and there’s not much point in switching.

That leaves the “moral imperative” dimension.  And while quite a few people in quite a few organisations may have quite a strong sense of this, it won’t often be strong enough to over-ride the “hitting our profit target” or “operating within our budget” dimension.  Sure, I’d rather pay our call-centre staff more, or train them better, or hire more of them, or increase their target call time, or improve their customer information screens, or indeed all of the above.  But that all costs money.  And making this year’s numbers looks tough enough already.

For some reason – I’m not sure why – the main supermarket retailers offer what I think is objectively a pretty high standard of service to their mass-market customers.  “Every little helps,” indeed:  if you accept the fundamental nature of the supermarket experience, it’s hard to see how it could be made much better, except perhaps by shortening the queues at the checkouts.   But I really can’t think of any other category of large service businesses with large mass market customer bases than can say the same.

Am I right?  And if so, is this acceptable?  There’s often a rather silly pretence that, honest, we’re trying to provide a good service, but by sheer bad luck you caught us on an off day.  This is hardly ever true.  The whole appointment-booking system at my local GP is a service nightmare, precision-engineered 100% to minimise the workload and suit the convenience of the practice, and 100% to be inconvenient, stressful, time-consuming and hugely frustrating for the customer.   And I could quote dozens of other examples in dozens of other areas that are equally bad – or at least nearly.

That was what I was trying to say in that last-but-one piece, if it hadn’t been for the analogy getting in the way, like a very tall man with an Afro hairstyle gets in the way when he sits in front of you in the cinema….Damn.  There I go again.

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