Are we really losing the art of looking each other in the eye, of saying to others what we would be prepared to say to their faces, of standing by our actions and diligently following them through as we would if we had to lose the anonymity of the call-centres and websites we largely seem to hide behind? This post is inspired by the continuation of my broken fridge and boiler scenarios, as shared in my last couple of blogs, since what unfolded “next” seemed to flag up a remarkably similar set of themes that were as thought-provoking on the deeper level as they were frustrating on the surface.
As the saga continues (still), one positive is that I am decided that I will never purchase “product protection insurance” again. Its not only a waste of time but is verging on being an oxymoron as its existence seems to do anything but protect your easy access to the said product. For starters, it probably pushes up the amount you spend on your products (encouraging exorbitant prices of white goods when one of the primary “customers” is always the insurance company that is constantly replacing the previous white goods that have now broken down – a stock-in-trade for well-known manufacturers of household appliances). The assumed “future claims” on these new-for-old policies at the point they are taken out inevitably push up the price of premiums for everyone and most people have become too afraid to live without them, like a form of serfdom attached to every product bought. If you’ve ever experienced the barrage of phone calls and follow-up marketing that comes in like a tsunami if you ever turn down the offered premium, you will have gained a sense of how much is at stake for those who make a profit out of them. Yet the end result is, on my experience, far more headache replacing your product than if it wasn’t insured and a sub-standard service from the insurance company because you are, effectively, at their beck and call, jumping through their hoops to get your life working smoothly again. As someone who has worked hard to liberate my life from external ties and reclaim my sovereign domain of professional and home life from other people’s protocols (hard as that can be to do in modern times), this last week or so of having to jump through such hoops to claim on two of my insurance policies have been some of the most frustrating times of the past half decade…and the most enlightening about the human condition. And its not just been about the insurance aspect but about the way we treat each other; the sheer lack of respect, empathy, decency or honesty that is rife.
I am now coming up to a week without a fridge-freezer and my boiler is still making peculiar noises, though it works on a modest temperature. I have also had a debacle over the delivery of a chair coming from Germany which was sent to an office in London “by mistake” by the distributors (and a wrong chair sent to me…); though that wasn’t the issue so much as the assumptions and shortcomings of the internet company I purchased it from, who laughed flippantly in the face of my concerns and the endless inconvenience of non-deliveries and wrong deliveries and who have had to be “chased-up” every inch of the way. The MD of this company was able to duck and dive in and out of so-called “availability” to talk to me, or shove his ill-informed employee in front of himself as a buffer, as suited him because, of course, we were doing all of this “virtually”.
On the subject of the fridge-freezer; which was (as I predicted) written off as soon as the engineers saw it on Monday morning, the start of my week was littered with increasingly more frustrating phone “conversations” with the insurers in which I was promised a call-back that never happened. Over and over again, I explained my plight and was assured by an anonymous voice at the end of the phone that s/he would pass on my file “right now” to x person in y department and that they would call me back by z time. None of these calls, even the evening call-back by the out-of-hours team that I was so sincerely assured of “tonight between 6 and 8, I promise…I’m emailing them right now” ever happened and, of course, their incoming phone systems were switched off by then. The tediously jolly jingle on the telephone line, so-obviously made to sound reminiscent of a childhood christmas song to mind-numb me into tolerance of their procedures, had become engrained in my mind by Tuesday morning, having spent literally hours on hold listening to it on Monday. If I had been charging my time by the hour, I would have made a fortune that day.
When I spoke to that same department bright and early the next morning, the girl actually guffawed down the phone at my frustration at the promised call not happening the night before and said “oh we’ve had a lot of complaints like yours this morning!” It was only five past nine so I was impressed that they were already in such full-swing. This time, at least, she progressed things to where my chosen fridge-freezer (I had done all the legwork myself to find the exact replacement model, removing this from their shoulders) was ordered for next day delivery and I was told I would get to speak to them later that day to discuss when I would be in. Fortunately, some personal detective work got me in touch with the suppliers and the department that dealt with delivery logistics as her assurance of such a call would not have held any water but the guy agreed to book me in “before midday” the next morning and so I crossed everything I had and hoped for the best. By now, we were quite desperate to eat something that didn’t involve toast or root vegetables and my house smells like mildewy cabbages.
Meanwhile we spent some time dismantling our old machine into smaller parts because, although we had paid extra for it to be taken away, we were told that our delivery-duo would probably tell us where to get off if they couldn’t fit it through our hallway and were unlikely to agree to unscrew the fridge doors.
When my new fridge-freezer arrived early today, I notice how unprofessionally wrapped it was, like it had been taped back into its polystyrene after being previously removed from its factory packaging. Straightaway as the plastic wrapper came off, I noticed a very deep dent on the side and we found a further three plus an enormous scratch. The delivery guys rang up their office and I overhead the woman on the other end say it was an insurance job and to just offer the customer a discount to keep it. Needless to say, I turned this down and requested a replacement unit…but her attitude typified how I felt I had been treated all week; like a second-class citizen because this was “just” a replacement on a policy, not an item purchased from a shop. And this is where insurance goes so horribly and fundamentally wrong; because, as soon as we call it in, we are treated like leaches and less-thans for all that we have been diligently paying our monthly premiums, possibly (as I had) for many years, amounting to a sum that would have – guess what – bought me a new fridge-freezer if I had just kept it in a bank account. When something is arranged through insurance, we are downgraded in somebody’s eyes and that mindset permeates the whole system that operates around it, from the call-centre to the logistics team and so we are kicked from pillar to post by people who never quite look you in the eye or truly listen your circumstances.
When you take part in any of this…as a person or an employee, both the same…you have become a number on a spreadsheet, the objective of which is for the machine that spews those numbers to fulfil the legal obligation at as little cost to itself as possible, with no consideration of circumstance or suitability. I have seen the same thing happen, through the back door, when I worked in personal injury and watched people offered treatments that were rudimentary or not what they most needed (or, indeed, no treatment at all when it was most called for) because that’s what their insurance dictated and the timescales that were involved often negated the effectiveness of the treatment by the time it was received. You become part of a sausage factory and, largely, spew out of it feeling sausage shaped, much like everyone else. Somewhere along the line, you realise, you stopped feeling like an actual person and took on their mindset that you are just that piece of processed meat plopping through the system and its a horrible feeling that permeates your very sense of self. The people that work in these very industries are also made to feel like this by the machine they are trapped in via the pay-roll and so the feeling perpetuates like a bad vapour that filters into all of our human dealings around such enterprise; people dole out more of what they feel they are being dealt by others so around and around it goes. This is how I came to feel when I was attached to insurance work for even just two years of my career, which coincides with when my health crashed utterly; part of the reason being, I now realise, that I felt so stomach-sick at the whole process I had become part of that it blighted my sense of self at the very root. En masse, as a society, we are all taking part in this mass root-blight, forgetting that – beneath the ground – all of our roots intertwine and so, in hurting others and ripping them off, we only hurt ourselves.
By contrast, the guys on the ground level, the pair who turned up with my fridge, could not be nicer or more genuine. Far from indicating they would have refused “point blank” to take off my fridge doors as I had been told by the call centre, who so clearly held them in very low regard, they were so incredibly grateful that we had already done this that they thanked us several times for making their job much easier. They were devastated for us when the dents to the new machine were discovered. They apologised profusely though none of this was their fault since someone else had loaded their truck. This incident had messed up the first part of their day yet they went the extra yard to take away our old machine and be polite and helpful, leaving me with a rescheduled delivery (tomorrow!) already arranged on the phone with the same woman who wanted to persuade me to accept the faulty model.
The same with my boiler repair man, who has been out twice already and is coming back next week as the problem still isn’t solved, through no fault of his own. He has pained and persisted over the strange noises my boiler makes and has made himself available by mobile phone so I can update him when it happens again, which I feel sure isn’t a part of the normal protocol. Both times, he has scheduled his revisits to save me the time of “going through the system”. Yet his problem is that, whilst he has a fair idea that it is one of two likely problems, he daren’t replace one part only to find out it was the other as the use of these “costly” parts flags him up for managerial attention. Two parts “spent” on one job could lead to him being very closely scrutinised or even being next in line for being replaced. In short, he is not at liberty to do his job efficiently and freely because my product is, guess what, taken care of under an insurance policy!
So here we go again in our world stuffed full of call-centres peopled by weary and disillusioned people spieling out their stock responses to real human beings seeking redress to the kind of problems that send their lives into disarray; what a mix, what a tension caused by almost entirely disparate aims. We have placed so many stages of protocol in between each other that it is a wonder we can ever get together to do anything creative.
Meanwhile, nobody feels “heard” and this undermines something fundamental about the human condition, stealing away our sense of worth and liberty while seemingly forcing us into the kind of corners where we show our very worst aspects as some sort of “currency” to barter with. I have found myself hamming up my personal circumstances to all those call centres this week, not because I want to make a meal out of health issues that require a plentiful supply of additive-free fresh meals cooked from scratch to keep me on the level; in fact I hate to bring these circumstances up with strangers as they can never understand why I don’t just phone for a takeaway or buy something processed. Yet, when cornered – hard – by a protocol that feel unrelenting obtuse and unlistening, we sometimes feel like there is nothing else we can do but spew our personal circumstances and lose our cool. We are often reduced to ranting toddlers by the time our solution is delivered after much banging of heads on a brick wall and so is it any wonder that the delivery or repair force is then accustomed to arriving at people’s homes to find customers poised like Rottweilers ready to pounce; no wonder they sometimes refuse to go the extra-yard. We have become entrenched in a mass stand-off, with the people who work at the front line of our services feeling abused and abusive because people behind the scenes get away with so very much. At its rotten root, it all comes from policy, not from the people manning the phones per se; though the fact they don’t have to look people in the eyes when they feed them the corporate line has made it oh-so easy for us to habituate this modern-day mode of behaviour and kid ourselves its is the acceptable norm to send out and receive. Our mores have become corporate and our evolution requires that we shed those standards and stand by our own once again; like we did when we were village shopkeepers and looked people straight in the eye…only on a far bigger scale. This is our next challenge and it is entirely achievable once we all remember how important it is to feel respected and heard ourselves.
When we get back to dealing with people as “real life” human beings with personal circumstances and feelings, we start to oil those stuck human cogs once again and remember how to flow (not grind) with each other. Even if we can’t see them; even when that person is down the end of the phone and possibly on the other side of the world, the treating “as if” they are right in front of us is a rule of thumb that would iron out a multitude of sins. It’s a skill-set we started to lose very rapidly once online shopping took over from the high street and as small independent shops rapidly disappeared into the mists of time; and we are set to lose this skill even faster, perhaps forever, if we don’t make the pitfalls of doing so very conscious. We need to consider what it is that we are ALL set to lose if we stop looking each other in the eye; as a mindset, even when it is not literally possible. If we work on the premise that we want to be able to hold our head up high in the company of anyone that we have ever had dealings with, we really can’t go very far wrong and will know how to act. When a job makes it impossible to live by that, do as I did and ditch the job; for me, it was the beginning of healing on a very grand scale and the first necessary step in reclaiming “who I truly am”.
An interesting outcome of the first visit from my boiler man was that I watched his attitude towards me melt before my very eyes. When he arrived here, first call of the day, I’m not sure if he was still half-asleep or just resolved to have a crappy morning but his mouth was set in a hard line and he clearly wanted no pleasantries as I showed him what was wrong. Yet, half an hour later, once he has been around my house to check my central heating and had noticed all my artwork littered in almost every room, he was suddenly transformed. When he asked me about all these paintings and we briefly chatted about art and what I do, he lit up completely and became quite the different person, which was when he seemed to resolve to do what he could to get my boiler working, even at the risk of drawing attention to his need to return another day or install parts that garner attention. In short, he stopped being a jobs-worth and has been more than pleasant to deal with since; in fact, I am so grateful for his diligence because I know how rare it is after over twenty years of boiler cover. If he did but know it, he has restored my faith in humanity more than just a little, along with those delivery guys this morning!
So, if we want a world full of job’s worths who work on a task like automatons and shrug when the job is left hanging then we are going the right way about it; and that includes how we treat those front-line people who deliver a particular service into our lives. The human factor – that quality that make us distinctly human – is such a slippery thing but we can grasp it with both hands and drag it back into the core of things if we really want and intend to make it a priority and, for all our sakes, we must before it is gone. Until we stop dashing past each other, bashing shoulders without apology, we remain locked in a groove of non-thought around our wider human interactions; like they have become as compartmentalised away from our personal selves as all the various departments in our huge corporate offices….thus we have stopped regarding ourselves as “whole”. Our interconnectedness via the internet and world commerce should be a great thing but only if we don’t lose ourselves down the cracks in between; and we should be running the machine, giving it a beating heart, not the other way around. Just as we do in a physical “shop”, we should engage with people – wherever they happen to be – as though they have our full attention in that moment. Just as I always make a point of making eye-contact with people serving me across a counter, taking the time to make conversation, however lighthearted and brief, we would do better if we practiced this all the time, regardless of whether the encounter is physical or virtual. By noticing their voice, tuning into the human factor and respecting them accordingly (whichever side of that conversation we happen to be on) we “look them in the eye” and this is such a failsafe gauge as how to treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves, leading directly to the realisation of a new paradigm where there are no winners or losers, just a system that serves everyone all down the line.