Do You Practice Digital Deception?

The Swissair flight was fully loaded at 8:45 on a recent Sunday evening. Zurich airport had been typical of Swiss efficiency, and the scheduled departure time of 8:55 seemed assured. Then, across the intercom, the pilot announced there would be a delay. There were, he explained solemnly, strict environmental restrictions at Zurich airport--from 9 p.m. only one runway was operational. We could not take off for 50 minutes.

Airport authorities' concerns for the comfort of local residents may be news to passengers, but I do wonder how Swissair could have been taken by surprise. Imagine the pilot complaining to the control tower: "You've done what? Closed a runway on environmental grounds? And never told us? And now you want us to wait?"

I can only guess at the series of events that led to the delay. There may have been a minor technical fault. The flight's take-off slot might have been taken by a delayed departure or an unscheduled arrival. But the reason offered to the customer--that Zurich closed a runway at 9 p.m.--seems unlikely.

This particular incident is trivial in itself, but the issue of corporate integrity is not. Will advanced customer relationship management (CRM) systems help companies to be truthful to their customers? Or will they just aid them in bending the truth with more consistency?

Public reaction to the anodyne telephone messages trotted out by interactive voice response systems should serve as a warning. It is galling to be told: "Your call is very important to us" for the 10th time as you wait...and wait...and wait.

The enhanced ability to communicate with customers has many dangers. Seth Godin, in his 1999 book Permission Marketing, has identified the perils of interruption marketing and its attendant practice of subjecting us to unwanted messages. It is a classic example of the law of diminishing returns. As the attention threshold for various types of consumers is raised, companies seek more imaginative ways of being noticed. It leads to a culture of exaggeration, with the minor consolation that the best tend to do it with humour or irony.

The software industry is hardly an example of candour with the customer. I've lost count of the number of occasions where the user's problem--no matter what it is--will be solved miraculously with the next release of the program. In business-to-business, we too have cliches to describe the invoice that isn't paid, or the goods that aren't delivered on time.

I suppose every business sector has its own examples of being economical with the truth. One thinks of banks with small businesses, food retailers on genetically modified ingredients, and rail operating companies with their timetables. In each case, suppliers vigorously defend their honour and insist that there has been no deception--merely a little spin. But customers have an instinct for when they are being spun a line, and crisis management advisors have a simple mantra: tell the whole truth and tell it as soon as possible.

For those who have invested in CRM tools, facilities exist to bring rewards for corporate integrity. These systems should, in theory, help to eliminate the more creative explanations of what has occurred. Scripting tools and knowledge repositories are designed to provide one authoritative answer where previously there were many. On-screen customer histories prevent call centre agents from making erroneous assumptions about prior events.

But, as with many inventions, they can be misused. The wrong end of the telemarketing industry systematically teaches gullible youngsters, desperate for work experience, to lie. In the US, such nuisance cold-calling is a major issue, and the EU is seeking curbs on such practices over here.

At the heart of this is the need for companies to invest properly in the values associated with their brands. Nothing tarnishes values more than the impression that a company doesn't always tell the truth.

Swissair has a fine image: competent staff, modern planes, reasonable punctuality and pleasant food. So, when my plane finally took off, I was eagerly awaiting a good meal. Actually, the food tasted awful. Funny, that.

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