BBC: Consumers’ Caped Curmudgeonly Crusader

This is a piece I wrote and recorded for the BBC World Service. It’s not Reuters content

Until my spoilsport wife told me to stop, I had a brief career battling for the little guy against big corporations and lousy service. I called myself the Consumer’s Caped Crusader.

My theory is this: that as companies and institutions become increasingly digital, so they sacrifice their relationship with the customer on the alter of efficiency. It’s not a particularly new or striking theory. But while most people shrug their shoulders and move on, I don’t. I fight back. Which means that while domestic harmony is not well-served, I do get to see a part of big organisations that others might not. 

And it’s not pretty. 

In a burst of caped canaverals I took on a public transport company, a shoe manufacturer, an e-payments company, a major tourist attraction and social network. Only one ended with me coming away impressed. 

What usually happens is this: I find the service or product less than impressive. I pen an email to the contact I can find on the website of the organisation in question — not always easy — and then wait. And, usually wait. 

If they do get back to me, it’s with some bland response that doesn’t really suggest I’m dealing with a human. In the case of the payments company, I submitted a long explanation of my problem through an online form, and in time received an email that I took to be an acknowledgement, and that someone would get back to me. 

But it wasn’t. It was a list of possible answers to my questions — all of them of help only to someone only had recently been introduced to computing. Worse: at the bottom of the email I was told that if I still wanted to pursue the matter, I should resend my request to someone else. Given that the company hadn’t sent me a copy of the essay I’d submitted in the first place I was not amused. 

Other interactions are more complex. A company whose shoes I’ve worn for 15 years sold me a dud pair, where the inside heel wore out in days. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just fobbed off with another duff pair, and I wanted to alert the company to the fact they might have a design flaw or a bad batch. Only after I dug up the email addresses of three directors was I able to get a receptive ear — and to their credit, an apology for the time I’d spent trying to get their attention. (‘Thank my wife,’ I told them.) 

The problem is that this all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A caped crusader can become a caped curmudgeon in the face of all this obstruction, angry and suspicious. When I wrote to complain to a transportation company that one of their drivers had mistaken the road for a race track two days in a row, forcing passengers to hang on for dear life, I was asked to hand over the number on my stored value travel pass.

I wasn’t convinced that the company needed that data and I was concerned the driver might be able to identify me when I used that card again and turn vigilante on the caped curmudgeon. 

The transportation company was resolute. The data was needed to confirm my story. “There have been many occasions where information given by commuters (detailed as it may be) was not accurate,” the company said.   

Maybe they’re right. But I’m not taking that risk. The lesson, sadly, seems to me a simple one: only the stubborn folk of this world fight their way through the digital barbed wire which organisations hide behind. The result: organisations treat such people as breaches of security, to be at best ignored, at worst palmed off with dead end email chains and treated as nincompoops incapable of knowing what bus they’re risking their life on. 

I have no solution to this, so I’ll quote my wife: Try to go out as little as possible because you always get upset at something. It’s an idea that’s increasingly appealing.  But it’s not quite the wall-less communications we dreamed of when the Internet came along.