Your call is important

The premise behind technology used to be that it serves human needs. But these days humans serve technology. Weird times call for weird words, so, as some long-forgotten genius once observed: “When the spider eats the fly, the spider becomes the fly.”

So, now what?

To the extent that the CNMI is serious about making any progress in tourism, the world’s snowballing trend of dehumanization might hold a warm spot here. After all, though technology is a force on the islands, it’s not yet the dominant force. There are still people who can get along with other people. That’s a good thing when it comes to serving tourists.

Like many things in life, or in business, you don’t notice something when it’s working but you do notice it when it’s not.

On the “not” side of the ledger, I’ve seen a growing number of examples where technology is deliberately used to put a firewall between staff and customers. Some formerly-mighty retail chains in the U.S. are making international business news as they fail. Regarding customers as merely human data mines, their stores made things as unpleasant as possible for these walking meat bags known as “shoppers,” and, guess what, the customers went away.

I suspect we’ve all got stories about this phenomenon in our own lives as customers, be it in retail, travel, financial services, or whatever.

For a small, mom-’n’-pop shop, few of us expect fancy, Ritz-level customer service. There’s nothing wrong with genuinely-rooted simplicity. Heck, given the alternatives these days, I think I prefer it.

But large and sophisticated companies seem to prefer technology to people. It’s getting to be a pretty twisted situation. I’ve resigned myself to migrating my accounts to businesses that are, for now, at least, less hostile to actual people. I’m lazy by nature and I try to avoid these kinds of chores, but I’m sick of waiting on hold while listening to a snide recording about how important my call is. This is the opposite of the “kindly hold, sir,” you get from a real, live person in the CNMI.

Of course, it being Friday and all, a visit to my beach chair should be rewarded with a little bit of thinking, or at least as much as I can muster, which usually ain’t much.

So here it is: Part of the situation we’re contemplating is rooted in the “agency problem.” This basically means that a corporate manager who hides behind a computer all day, and thus avoids dirtying the hands with the unglamorous world of customer service matters, isn’t the one who is going to suffer for the eventual loss of revenue. The shareholders are the ones who take that hit. Of course, shareholders themselves are likely to be large institutions.

Furthermore, it’s impossible to really determine cause-and-effect here; how many of your customers left because of bad service, and how many left because of other factors, is an issue that can be argued but never really proved.

When it comes to agency, the most incompetent bunglers often have a slick genius for sitting on the corporate payroll for a long, long time. It’s the executive version of low cunning. The resulting absurdities are a common theme in the famous “Dilbert” cartoon strip. If you’re looking for some text on the agency problem it gets insightful treatment by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile.

Anyway, having looked at all these gray clouds, if you’re looking for a silver lining then here we go. Saipan’s tropical charm, friendly ways, and laidback demeanor are attributes that will command a premium in the coming years. Globally, the cold glint of technology is getting colder. Saipan can offer a place to thaw.

So the good news is that Saipan doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to be friendly.

The, uh, other news is that the good news is null and void if a reasonably competent level of public administration isn’t maintained. That’s an agency problem writ large. But that’s not my department, so we’ll just keep on rolling.

I’ll mention this: I’ve seen 10-person companies on Saipan that could, and did, outrun their 30-person counterparts elsewhere. That’s because the Saipan workers were getting the job done (and serving customers) instead of stabbing each other in the back in office politics or hiding behind a computer in the air conditioning.

That’s what I think. What do you think?

Hey, let me know. After all, your call is important.

Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.
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