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Customer service in the data economy

Tech customer service has attained a whole new level of weird over the past couple of weeks.

As Facebook rolled out its Android Messenger app, users realised that they needed to grant over 30 security permissions to access their inbox, including access to audio recordings, photos, videos, phone numbers, text messages and contacts.

They responded with hyperventilating blog posts, how-to-uninstall guides and lists of alternative messaging apps. 611,815 people have so far signed an online petition commanding Zuckerberg to desist.

According to the Google Play store, the app has now been downloaded over 500 million times.

FAQ fighting

Barely a month goes by without Facebook’s users biting the hand that feeds them. See the furore over its ‘emotional contagion’ experiment back in June, or the perennial accusations of shadowy security-setting tweaks.

Of course, none of those outraged users ditched the network either. How else would they share the next petition?

Facebook’s standard response is to release a terse Help Center (sic) blog – at a push, one of their team might defend themselves in a public post – and then wait for the fuss to die down and forge on oblivious with their next move. They’re not alone.

Customer service in the data economy is notoriously poor. It may look promising to begin with – Hey, they’re so quirky on Twitter! We can see pictures of their puppy crèche on Instagram! – but if you have a practical problem or a serious concern, they’re all impenetrable FAQs and links to all-purpose online forms.

Suddenly, the ‘one big collaborative community’ branding feels a little thin.

Status anxiety

When it comes to free tech, we’re not customers. Money is still considered the quid pro quo for customer service, so willingness to be data-farmed doesn’t automatically bring us consumer rights. But this isn’t just about money; it’s goes much deeper, to the essential way that these businesses perceive us and how we perceive ourselves in relation to them.

In this space, we’re no longer even consumers. We’re users — and our new status brings a host of implications in terms of privacy, reciprocity, loyalty and power.

The more consumers consume, the less they have. The more users use, the more they have. Sounds brilliant, right? We are more powerful than traditional, commercial consumers, because we generate our own value; it is our content, connections and interactions that drive our satisfying experience.

However, it is also a dangerously easy way for companies to justify poor design, frustrating ‘upgrades’ and unwelcome features. Can a service provider be blamed if our life and behaviour just isn’t awesome enough to put flesh on their framework’s bones?

Customer Service

Me me me

The user is the end product in the data economy. We are what we make of ourselves through these networks and apps, whether they’re helping us to collate our perfect wardrobe from online boutiques or to fulfil our potential by parking more efficiently.

We are, we keep being told, ‘at the centre of the experience’ like never before.

This means that it’s always personal. Consumers are not always the end users of what they buy and they can share and compare the same product or service, like for like. But in a world of customisation, algorithms and plugged-in personal graphs, each of us is isolated in our own bubble of experience.

By becoming data-trading users, we not only abandon our consumer rights but our benchmarks and our solidarity.

All mouth and no trousers

And yet, ironically, users are often more sensitive and vocal about their perceived rights. Social media is the natural home of the customer whinge. We have never felt the power of our voice more keenly but the sensation of power is very different from the real thing.

If we don’t like a paid product or service, we don’t buy it. But, locked in by the network effect and high on the drug of self-representation, we just can’t bring ourselves to pull our profiles.

So can we really blame platforms if they are both opaque and fundamentally unbothered by our grievances? There is no such thing as a free Pinterest lunch recipe. The problem lies in our naive expectations and hypocritical soapboxing as much as their ethics.

Complaint is, at the end of the day, just more content for the mill.