The theory of Six Degrees of Separation suggests that everything and everyone can be connected within six or fewer steps. You know a guy, who knows a guy, and so on, who knows me. The theory is supposed illustrate how it’s a small world, maybe it’s supposed to make us feel closer, more connected. Well, I think the retail industry is trying to put the theory into reverse, to create six degrees of separation between them and us (their customers) so that we can’t be connected.
I admit that this theory of mine is inspired by two recent bad shopping experiences, one on-line and one “in-person.” I put in person in quotes, because I’m not sure there were really people involved in the sale. I purchased a refrigerator in a store, from a person, but I was separated from her as soon as she said”
“Give them your phone number at the checkout. If they can’t find you in the system, give them you company name or maybe the company phone number.” Remember the day when that person would have said “here, let me take you up to the checkout and let’s wrap up this paperwork.”
I will also admit that I was once on the other side, the dark side if you will. I didn’t work in retail; I was a consultant to financial institutions – doesn’t that sound better than “banks?” Back in the early 1980’s, at least in New England, most banks had ATMs but you had to go to one of your bank’s ATMs to use it. Projects were underway across the county to build ATM consortiums, or Interbank networks so that anybody could use any ATM card at any bank. Most of us welcomed this as a convenience, but the banks were also looking for a way to save money.
Convenience is the 1st degree of inverse separation – In the ATM / Debit card / Interbank network, you become the teller. You are also the “clearing” operation. Back in the 1980’s banks had people in windowless backroom offices processing every check that you wrote. They would put those checks on a plane each night and fly them to one of about a dozen Federal Reserve check processing centers so the money could be moved from Bank-A to Bank-B. This is the process that allowed you to write a check today, even though you weren’t getting paid until tomorrow. ATM networks weren’t designed solely for your convenience, that’s just how they were packaged.
Similarly, during the convenience of an online shopping experience, you become the salesperson. You’re the one saying “oh that dress looks good on you,” you’re the one pointing out that “and it’s on sale this week.” You might also be the one saying “these shoes would look perfect with this dress,” but I digress. Of course these are conveniences, but people were removed from the process and the distance between you and your bank / store grew by one step.
The 2nd degree of inverse separation came when most companies, stores and banks decided to outsource customer service. Now, when that dress you sold yourself arrives in the wrong color or the wrong size, or it isn’t actually the dress you ordered, you don’t call the store, you call a company in (wherever those companies are today). Let’s face it, the company was barely involved in the sale, why should they be directly involved in the problem? I could share my recent customer service rants with you, but you have your own. I’m willing to bet that you and I could get connected via a customer service problem in less than 6-steps.
The 3rd degree of inverse separation is outsourced delivery / installation. I’m not talking about someone at the store where you work part-time selling yourself dresses and shoes, giving the dress to UPS to give to you. I’m not talking about the money that pops out of the ATM in Iowa even though your bank is in Boston. I’m talking about the furniture or the appliance or the big bulky thing that you just bought or the cable TV you just ordered where the salesperson, told you “we’ll call you tonight between 6:00 and 9:00 and give you a window of time during which we will deliver / install this tomorrow.”
There’s no “we” in the sense of a delivery person at that store. Drive by after they close, do you see a fleet of delivery vans? No, “we” is the logistics company who proposed the lowest total cost for delivering your living room furniture, my refrigerator and some guy’s garage door. When you don’t get your furniture, or when I didn’t get my refrigerator, you and I get to call the shipping company, who has outsourced their customer service to (wherever those companies are today).
What’s next? What will be the 4th degree of separation? Well, for some small companies, it’s the outsourcing of the entire company. They don’t really have a store, let alone customer service or shipping departments. Sometimes this is a good thing; a small business owner makes really cool stuff that he or she can sell to anyone, anywhere at any time of the day. Sometimes, this is just some smarmy guy pretending to have a product or service, a middleman between you and the real Internet store with outsourced customer service and delivery. Maybe the 4th or perhaps the 5th or 6th degree will be where retailers will separate themselves out of business.