A Sorry View of the Future

My lunches used to be reserved for business deals and networking, but as I’ve gotten older and more of my friends are retired, the conversations now veer more toward complaints about the world around us. From what I’ve been told, this represents only a short transition. Soon the conversations will turn to personal health and body parts — what our own Stone Soup cartoonist Jan Eliot dubbed “organ recitals.” I’m enjoying the current gripefests for what they are. When we’re older we’ll complain about our feet. For now, we talk about what’s afoot.

One lunchtime was filled with intricate plans that Google is hatching to consolidate our on-line dossiers to better serve its advertisers. I wanted to look up the plans on the Internet, but then I wondered if that would only make things worse.

Another lunchtime bemoaned a downtown bank’s shortened lobby hours, proclaimed on the still-locked door at 9:55 a.m.: “New Hours. Same Great Service.” I wondered two things as I waited those five minutes for the doors to open. Will that Great Service spread over fewer hours be even Greater? And what hope is there for any of us when even bankers no longer keep bankers’ hours?

But a lunch last week asked the meta-question: “When did businesses stop trying to please me?”

My friend had just received a new credit card in the mail and the billing cycle ends on the 6th of each month. “I’m sure they know that people tend to pay their bills on the first, so if I send a check on the 1st, it’ll be late every month. They’ll change my billing cycle to whatever I want, but it’s one more phone call.”

He’s savvy and he’ll make that call, but how many others don’t — and then rack up late fees as a result?

I joined the tirade by noticing that both my shampoo and my laundry detergent now come in bottles that cannot be easily emptied, not completely. I’m guessing the “easy pour” spout traps about three percent of the liquid in the bottle. Since I can’t remove this added convenience (without a blow torch), that represents the same economic gain for the manufacturer as a three percent price increase.

What’s worse is that whoever figured that out got a raise last year, and the person paid to make the detergent better probably didn’t.

I first noticed during the Clinton years that companies no longer expected competence from their employees. Compassion for frustrated customers had become a suitable substitute. Somebody must have figured out is was cheaper to teach workers to apologize than to give them the training and authority to do their jobs well.

When I went to school, students who wanted to be wealthy had really only two choices: law or medicine. Banking wasn’t on the list. In the 1990s, investment banking suddenly became a lucrative career. But how?

Computers began to add new pathways to wealth. Making a small amount of money over and over had been tedious and time-consuming. Just ask any laundromat owner.

Computers changed the equation. A tiny task can be repeated a million times in an instant. Day traders comb the stock exchanges, trolling for tiny anomalies. They might buy a stock and sell it again on the same day and make millions.

My friend’s credit card company is doing the same. They send introductory packets to thousands of new customers every day. They know how many will ask for a change in their billing cycle. They know how likely their profits will rise on those who don’t. They can run those numbers. In this way, they know something you don’t know. They know how many of their customers are just like you.

Google or Facebook may know more about me than I’d like to believe. Target recently made the news by figuring out from buying patterns that a teenager was pregnant, sending her maternity clothing coupons before her father had been told.

A single customer no longer stands for every other customer. Now the reverse is true. Broad patterns of customer preferences can be modeled and tested, reliably predicting what you want or what you’ll stand for.

All this talk of who stands for what is making my feet hurt.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.