When the customer comes second

County View

County View
John Healy

For those of us of a greying generation whose patience tends to wear thin at the obstacle course which now represents every attempt to complete a transaction, however mundane, with a financial institution, there is reassuring news from Spain.
Carlos San Juan is a 75-year-old gentleman who, fed up to the teeth with being told to download an app for this, that and the other, decided that enough was enough. (‘F*%k this for a game of cowboys’ is what I like to think he said to himself, in Spanish.)
So early this year, he launched a petition to encourage banks to stop making life difficult for older customers by forcing them into conducting their business online. Or, as he put it, it was time to put a stop to the tail wagging the dog and to remind the banks that it was their duty to facilitate the customer – who, in the end, was paying their salaries – rather than the other way round.
Señor San Juan could hardly have expected the avalanche of support he received.
The campaign attracted nearly 650,000 signatures, with its memorable slogan of ‘I’m old, NOT an idiot’. It was a tidal wave which brought the bankers to their senses. They sat up and took heed, so much so that the Spanish authorities and banking associations have now published a ten-point legislative plan, to guarantee that elderly people receive ‘personal, respectful, high-quality treatment’.
The plan includes a promise that banks will prioritise personal attention to older customers between certain specified hours, will make dedicated fully staffed phone lines available to them, guarantee accessibility, and improve the level of staff training and face-to-face engagement with customers.
Señor San Juan’s campaign serves to highlight the growing gap between the use of new technology and the rate at which older customers are able to adapt enough to be comfortable with innovations. What app designers tend to refer to as simple, easy steps can, to an older user, be at best a nuisance or, at worst, a confusing labyrinth. Designers of new online services claim to focus on mainstream users, and to dismiss older users as ‘fringe’ users who can be left to sink or swim.
But all of this is to ignore one vital fact. Demographers forecast that, on average, over 65s will account for more than a fifth of EU member countries citizens by 2028. Add in other users who may not have access to or cannot afford the required technology and it becomes clear that mainstream users are an entirely different cohort than the geeks assume them to be.
Two months ago, Ireland’s first checkout-free food store opened in Dublin. Frictionless shopping, it is called, meaning that you can visit, browse, select and bag your purchases and leave again without the need to make contact with a single human being. The technology will follow you around the shop, monitor your selections, and then debit your bank account with the total cost.
A week ago, we learned that the Driving Licence centre in Castlebar is to be closed down to personal callers. Any business you need to transact will be done by downloading an app and following the ‘simple instructions’.
The dehumanising of retail and public services is beginning to happen at breakneck speed. Service providers will soon be shut of what they regard as the hassle of dealing with pesky and demanding customers.
Until, that is, the wheel comes full circle and the Señor San Juans of the world unite to win the ball back from the technocrats.