The Ghost in the Machine: Where Has Process Automation Left the Consumer?

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The Ghost in the Machine: Where Has Process Automation Left the Consumer?

A Background of Conflict and Malaise

There is a growing trend in business circles towards customer advocacy as a means for enterprises to manage customer experience branding. Today's consumers are generally better informed (and in some respects more militant) than their counterparts from fifty years ago, and marketers and customer service representative (CSR) managers are finding it necessary to adapt their strategies to take this into account.

It turns out that customers don't have complaints. They have full-fledged grievances. Data from the Purdue University Center for Customer-driven Quality suggests that the repurchase probability for a customer whose problem is unresolved is at about 32 percent. Not surprisingly, this probability almost triples when the customer's problem is resolved with a perceived "wow!" solution. For more on the correlation between customer relationship management (CRM) and business success, see Customer Relationship Management Strategies, Part One: Changing Your Approach.

With such quantifiable bottom-line impacts at stake, companies are increasingly aware of an overriding need for customer perception management, also known as the search for the "warm fuzzy." Faced with criticism of collective business practices from civil society groups and high-profile media (as witnessed by the relative success of such documentaries as Roger & Me, The Corporation, and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price) enterprises have started to embrace the idea that a shift (in perception, primarily) may be necessary in order to retain the investors and customers who might otherwise keep at a wary distance, thanks to a chorus of condemnation. Enterprises have every reason for worry: contrary to Hollywood dogma, there is indeed such a thing as bad publicity (as testified by the ever-widening ripples of the Enron effect), and if the average consumer makes no distinction between corporate behavior and business practices as a whole, well that's just tough love.

It may be worth looking at what lies beneath the outrage. It's fair to say that corporations are held to moral standards that simply do not have the same scope as those of ordinary human beings. Let's say, for example, that your neighbor cheats and lies as a matter of course. Do you phone the police? Write letters to the local newspaper? Form a coalition designed to protest your neighbor's right to exist? Probably not. In the real world, it's entirely possible that this man is also your brother-in-law. We're only human, we say, wryly or cheerfully, depending on our perspective.

On the other hand, companies that are perceived as liars and cheaters are generally bloodied (if unbowed) in the court of public opinion, and risk suffering tremendous losses in terms of investor fallout and consumer withdrawal. Never mind that a corporation is a legal person under US law. The perception is that corporations ought to behave differently. And rightfully so.

After all, human relationships of all kinds are increasingly mediated—in some cases governed—by consumer transactions. It comes as no surprise when research shows that consumers sometimes relate with brands similarly to the way they relate to people in a social context. (Fournier, Susan [1998], "Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 24 [March], 34373.)

Thanks in part to the Internet, the list of things you can buy today is far, far more extensive than it was even thirty years ago. For twenty dollars you can rent a pet. For thirty bucks, you can outsource a bit of revenge. For forty, you can splurge on personal security. And for a tad more, a spouse. It all depends on your priorities, and where you're at, as they say. Although increasingly, you can pay for that, too.

But it's not just the Internet. The list of the commodities unheard of by past generations of consumers goes on and on. Genes. Dating. Adoption. Space travel. Leisure of all kinds. Water. Knowledge. Surrogacy. Human organs. Even environmental best practices. It's not hard to imagine a time soon when the entire cycle of hatch, match, and dispatch will be governed by a chain of transactions, a break in which will perhaps lead to utter psychological dislocation (witness the efforts of companies today to target the four-year-old demographic).

Some civil society groups proclaim, somewhat shrilly, that "big business" has become today's "high church," meaning that corporations have invested themselves with the power (and the glory) to shape our perception of the world as they see fit. This is a little hyperbolic, but lest we forget, the term "perception management" is military-speak for "propaganda," and with so many parallels between business and the military (for a while, Sun-Tzu's The Art of War was all the rage in business circles), it's no surprise that business should have adopted this as the new holy grail, so to speak.

The US Department of Defense (DOD) gives this definition for perception management:

Perception Management—Actions to convey and/or deny selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning as well as to intelligence systems and leaders at all levels to influence official estimates, ultimately resulting in foreign behaviors and official actions favorable to the originator's objectives. In various ways, perception management combines truth projection, operations security, cover and deception, and psychological operations. See also Psychological Operations.

This should sound familiar to anyone working in sales or customer care. Of particular significance is the notion of customer as "foreign audience." Given the enormous proliferation of business-related buzzwords and terms ("cherry-picking", "unsiloing", "pick face", "spiff", "metric-centric", and so on), it's not such a stretch to think of business as a foreign language, too.

All this is to say that it's perhaps no coincidence that in English—the international language of business—the verb "to buy" also means "to believe." As in "I don't buy this claptrap."

And Now, Send in the Machines

Against this backdrop of malaise, business process automation looms large. This is particularly true since the malaise is rooted in a fundamental discord with the founding ethos of consumerism (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). In business, there is an generally unspoken feeling that two out of three ain't bad, but consumers may not necessarily agree. Thirty years ago, alarms were already sounding:

"The real danger is the gradual erosion of individual liberties through automation, integration, and interconnection of many small, separate record-keeping systems, each of which alone may seem innocuous, even benevolent, and wholly justifiable." U. S. Privacy Study Commission, 1977

Before we succumb to table-thumping rhetoric, it's useful to take a look at business automation's bigger (but poorer) brother, artificial intelligence (AI). AI is a double-edged sword. Proponents of AI argue that only good can come of such projects, such as the (near) humiliation of the world's greatest chess player. But there are also those who take a more cautious approach, without necessarily descending into the fantasia of world domination by robots with a tendency to stutter under stress.

There is some concern that the same process of evolution which has led to the sightless scorpions recently discovered in Israel will eventually lead to three-fingered humans (how many fingers do you use on a mouse?). If AI ever advances to the point of utility, will human thought be supplemented by AI, or supplanted? ("Jeeves knows the answer before you know the question!")

But this is just polite scaremongering. To paraphrase the writer Terry Pratchett, artificial intelligence will never hold a candle to real stupidity. The real issue is how business process automation affects the consumer.

Most consumers remain blissfully unaware of the alphabet soup that—directly or indirectly—controls, defines, and shapes the whole of their consumer experience: ADC, BI, BPM, CRM, ERP, HR, MTTF, PIM, PDM, PPM, RFID, SCM ... And indeed, the "average" consumer may be somewhat startled to know that he (on average, he is still usually a he) is part of a flow chart. If you're not in the know, it's a bit disconcerting to learn, for example, that some enterprises track events such as when you use your automated teller machine (ATM) bank card. Perhaps more importantly, they track "non-events," such as when you do not. See Marketing Automation: Coming of Age Slowly and What Drives Profitability for more information on this "art form."

The "build it and they will come" philosophy is outdated to some extent, as the information age has led to an explosion of consumer awareness as well as consumer choice. But the fact remains that consumers will keep coming, no matter what the degree of transactional automation, and this is why enterprises continue to put such emphasis on brand loyalty.

It's an old literary, media, historical, and industrial truth: form is content. And when you've reached the point of automating the form, to a certain degree you've automated the content. Now, consumers are in no danger of becoming fully-automated buying machines (and here, it's actually worth pointing out that consumerism is not simply a crude form of materialism—in one end and out the other—but that it actually transforms the consumer). But there is a subtle automation of consumer expectations. As a consumer, how many times have you given up on a transaction at the first instance of an "error while processing your request" message? To an extent, the present generation of consumers expects efficient automation, and it's not too far-fetched to imagine that future generations of consumers will reject any process that displays inherent inefficiency.

Enterprises, meanwhile, are giving increasing priority to providing real time online visibility of services, meaning that consumers themselves are now playing a pivotal role in provisioning and workflow processes. Call this adaptability, call it a value-added service, or call it a competitive advantage. You can also call it the beginning of the end of sharp distinctions between the customer and business processes.

In other words, it turns out that there is something of a symbiotic parasite-host relationship between process automation and the consumer. The question remains, nevertheless: which one is the parasite?

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