Fiona Mountford

The insidious creep of corporate friendliness

The insidious creep of corporate friendliness
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Have you noticed it? The slide towards faux-friendliness and fake sincerity from the companies with whom we used to have an impersonal and transactional relationship. The deal used to be simple: we paid them, they did things or provided stuff, thank you and goodbye. If something went awry, we told them and, with luck, they fixed it. Feelings, other than occasional frustration, did not come into it. But in recent years, presumably inspired by American corporate culture, companies are no longer content with worming their way into our wallets. Now they want to commandeer the emotional part of our brains as well. They’ve done their research into behavioural science and the psychology of retail. They have started to emote, to empathise, to understand and to ‘chat’.

I’m still reeling from the recent ‘chat’ I had with my bank, HSBC. I logged on to my online banking with the simple goal of ordering a new cheque book. After a few minutes of futile clicking, a cheery chat bot popped up, enquiring whether I needed any assistance. I typed my one-line request. The chat bot apologised airily but said it didn’t know what I was talking about. I tried again. Nope, the bank’s chatting machine had never heard of cheque books or the ordering thereof, but was absolutely there to help me. This exchange carried on, until finally it gave in and suggested I call the helpline or pop into my local branch (which is shortly to be closed, as all our banking needs can be carried out online). Having assisted with nothing, this electronic gremlin rounded off our conversation by asking if there was ‘anything else I can help you with’ and wishing me a nice day. What on earth would our grandparents’ pragmatic generation have made of this sort of institutional nonsense?

I blame the London Olympics. Until early 2012, the deal was clear and the lines were drawn: we were the customers and ‘they’ — the blissfully vague ‘they’ that control so much of life — were the providers, and there was much clear water between us. Yet gradually the effects of some sort of mass rebranding campaign to make the capital, and by transference the whole country, more ‘user-friendly’ began to be felt: no longer were Tubes not running ‘due to’ a signal failure, but ‘while we fix a signal failure’. Language became more personal and there was much apologising for the inconvenience thrown in for good measure. The world was coming to us and we needed to be on our best behaviour.

Here’s the crucial test: since this infestation of the language of feelings, has customer service got any better? I would say no, certainly not; if anything it has taken a turn for the worse. ‘We apologise for the inconvenience’ has become the catchphrase of the terminally mediocre. Far too many organisations have taken to the belief that saying sorry for some shabbiness is an acceptable substitute for actually fixing the problem.

Take a look at the Twitter replies of any supermarket for a glimpse of how prevalent corporate mea culpas are. In their book The Apology Impulse: How the Business World Ruined Sorry and Why We Can’t Stop Saying It, Sean O’Meara and Cary Cooper helpfully crunched the numbers. On one day in 2018, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons made a total of 151 customer service apologies between them on Twitter. Sainsbury’s apologised 31 times, Tesco 29 times, Morrisons 41 times and Asda found sorry to be the least hard word by apologising 50 times.

It is all too easy to be liberal with this cheap and meaningless language. A nasty strain of passive-aggressiveness has crept in too. ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ is a popular one. I tried in vain to explain to the gas distribution company Cadent that its tarmacking-over of part of my front garden was not a subjective sensation, but an empirical fact. I did not, I struggled to assure them, want to be their friend or to be concerned about hurt feelings. I would just like my roses left in peace and my gas meter to work. And, if necessary, to pay them by cheque.

Nonetheless, their needlessly emotional emails carried on, as did the apologies for the inconvenience, an inconvenience that grew rather than lessened as the weeks rolled onwards. That’s by the by in this brave new world of corporations-as-frenenemies; it is not doing the right thing but saying the right thing that counts. As for those who long for the olden days of dispassionate interactions in professional contexts, well, I’m sorry you feel that way.