Musing about engagement

It’s good to talk

(Some of you might remember the old BT campaign from the 1990s. So here’s the link, in case you’re in need for a nostalgia fix).


I had occasion to visit the local hospital this afternoon. So I checked myself in, made my way to the relevant waiting room, took out my book (I rarely travel without one) and settled down for the wait that the room promised.

There was only one other person there. A lady who didn’t seem particularly happy about being there. Someone came to attend to her, and things went from bad to worse. Apparently she wasn’t meant to turn up today, so her name wasn’t on the list. They would still see her, but needed her to fill out a form. She explained, in some agitation, that her arthritic hands made writing impossible. The attendant offered to do the writing, but couldn’t understand what the lady was saying: by that time her voice had become a tired wail.

So I volunteered to interpret her and complete the form. The attendant took it, the lady thanked me. And all was well. And I sat back down with my book.

Then she started talking to me. Asked me why I was there. Listed the medical appointments she had coming up. Told me how old she was, told me what she did for over fifty years before she retired, why her hands were as arthritic as they were. I nodded, smiled, acknowledged, asked the odd question here and there. I did the polite thing.

After a few minutes, she said “I’m sorry to go on, I just wanted to talk. I don’t get the chance to do that often enough”. We chatted until it was time for her to be seen.

The incident made me think. The topic of people needing to talk has been on my mind for a very long time, ever since I saw a poster at a railway station, maybe thirty years ago, saying something like “This is Helen. She hasn’t spoken to anyone for 27 days“. As someone born and brought up in Calcutta, living in a very crowded city, growing up in a warm and loving family, being blessed with great friends, the statement on the poster just “did not compute”. I wasn’t trained to understand loneliness. Or, for that matter, what it meant to grow old in isolation.

Regular readers may have noticed I wrote about something related recently, the concept of Kletsklassa: how a Dutch supermarket sought to reduce loneliness in the community. Rather than link back to my post, here’s someone else’s view on the topic, worth reading.

Markets are conversations

Yes, it’s time to refer to Cluetrain again, and to Doc Searls‘s wonderful message there. It’s hard to believe that we will soon be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Manifesto going live. But let me work my way through to the reference.

In a recent post I’d mentioned that there was a campaign under way to shutter a number of railway ticket offices. Apparently someone with a clipboard and some moisture behind the aural organs had worked out that people weren’t using the ticket offices any more; at the very least, numbers were dropping, and there were efficiency to be had. So the ticket offices had to go.

I live in a village. A village with a lot of people my age, or even older. A village with many retirees. The ticket office gets used. A lot. Aggie, usually to be found behind the counter window, is an integral member of the community. Always smiling, always there to help. Many of her customers have Senior Railcards, and she’s there to help them find the best tickets. When to get a Travelcard. When to get two singles. When to get a return, and to pay separately for the Tube component. Most of her customers have very specific needs, and the fare systems are complex.

There are machines outside the ticket office, on the platform. But her customers don’t tend to use them. It’s hard to bend down and read what’s on the screen. Hard to understand why the touch screens aren’t working. Hard to understand why their card doesn’t work. Harder still when that rare visitor, the sun, turns up, and makes screen-reading impossible. To make matters worse, Wet And Windy and Freezing are common flavours that the weather comes in.

So they go to the ticket counter.

When they go there, they chat. Say hello to Aggie (or, on the occasions when she’s not working, her colleagues). They exchange pleasantries. Ask about each other’s health. Share their news. They don’t just chat to Aggie, but also to the others in the room, which doubles as a small waiting room. It’s a community.

They go to buy tickets, in order to go somewhere. They avoid the machine, because they need the advice and the help. They stay for the warmth and for the company. It’s a ritual. It’s a community thing.

And it’s going to disappear. Because profits.

The clipboards don’t understand that machines don’t put up Christmas trees or decorations; that machines don’t know how to charm a crying child; that machines don’t know the habits and the challenges and the needs of the community. That machines don’t smile and say hello.

By the way, I’ve worked in and with technology all my life, and technology keeps me alive. I’m no Luddite. The principal point I wanted to make at this stage is that the ticket office represents more than just a place where tickets are vended. The warmth, the assistance, the companionship, the sense of community, these are all part of the picture.

Those conversations form the markets.

This isn’t just for or about old people. When I was a teenager in Calcutta, I would disappear every now and then to go to the Ice Skating Rink. (I hear that today it’s no longer an ice skating place, but it’s still called what it used to be called).

I never went there for the ice skating. I didn’t own skates, and never rented them either, there were many other things I preferred to do with what little money I had.

I went there for the ice, not the skating. It was the coolest place in the city. The operators assumed that everyone who entered would hire skates and book time on the rink, so that’s how they made their money. I was an outlier. A happy, chilled, silent outlier.

People do things for reasons, but the reasons aren’t always transactionally obvious.

When I was young, every time someone left the city or arrived there, we would all go to the railway station. To see them off. Or to welcome them in.

We went regularly to railway stations. Without any intention of getting on a train. Someone worked it out, so we had to buy something called a platform ticket. For the right to say hello or goodbye. Which we did.

People do things for reasons, but the reasons aren’t always transactionally obvious.

Cost leadership and service leadership

Nearly 20 years ago, an old friend, Sean Park, the founder and CIO of Anthemis, released an amazing video. AmazonBay. If you haven’t seen it yet, see it now. If you have seen it already, see it again. It’s worth it. Sean is one of the smartest people I know.

I had the privilege of working with him for a number of years, and we spent a lot of time chatting about what we saw and learnt. Part of what I learnt from him was the idea of a Death Zone, at the centre of a spectrum that went from cost leadership, high volume low touch, to service leadership, low volume high touch, and why companies in that Death Zone were likely to include regional champions with some sort of regulatory capture, unable to compete at the extremes, destined to stay in the Death Zone.

The high-touch end was one where carbon ,not silicon, was the order of the day; conversation was normal, expected, encouraged. The high-volume end was one focused on silicon not carbon, straight-through-processing, doesn’t touch the sides.

Which begged the question, if markets were conversations, what would this mean for the silicon end of the spectrum? Not surprisingly, it meant better customer experience embedded into the self-service model, something Sean was quick to point out and pick up on.

An aside. We’re seeing more and more anthropomorphism enter the digital world. Machines now have bedside manners, aided and abetted by LLMs, and people haven’t adjusted their trust models to prepare for that. It will hurt.


Which brings me to the point of this post.

We live in a strange world.

On the one hand, we keep shutting down opportunities for people to meet face to face, to engage in human terms: bank branches are going extinct; ticket offices are emerging as a variant of hen’s teeth; supermarket checkouts are becoming one-armed bandits with regular prizes, red lights that flash loudly and tell the world that the bozo at till 14 needs help.

We keep shutting down the chance for the conversations which make those markets.

On the other hand, as we digitise everything, we are desperate for “engagement”; we measure likes and similar signals, ask for feedback and check Trustpilot and NPS, we track customer persistency, we find ways to track and reward loyalty, we look for opportunities to “upsell”.

We keep inserting ways and means to sense what the customer wants or thinks or feels, to keep the customer in conversation with us, the conversations that make those markets.

Two paths. One that increases engagement, and one that decreases it. Two paths that we follow at the same time.

As with much in life, it’s not really a question of having to choose between one path and the other. This is not about A or B.

It’s about A and B.

With the customer free to choose, based on context. Sometimes being able to select time and place and self-serve from home is fine, especially if the chooser is comfortable with the technology. Sometimes it’s about simplicity and convenience and having someone help you. Sometimes it’s about the community and the companionship. With the customer free to choose.

One of the more worrying trends I’ve noticed recently is that every action of mine, analog or digital, sparks off a request for feedback. Go for a medical appointment? How did we do? Buy something in a shop? How did we do? Book a flight or hotel? How did we do? Book a car service? How did we do?

The logical continuance is that soon we will be bombarded by surveys about surveys. How did we do?

And the logical consequence is that people will respond less and less to surveys. People will stop letting you know how they think or feel or what their needs or aspirations are.

Not because they weren’t asked. But because they didn’t like the way they were asked.

Markets are conversations. And the terms of the conversation can’t be set by one side alone. Not in any sustainable or reliable way.

Everyone needs TLC. Everyone needs affirmation. But it can become tiresome if you keep getting asked to provide it. And then unintended consequences could follow.

As Auden said, in The Unknown Citizen

Was he free?/ Was he happy?/ The question is absurd/ Had anything been wrong/ We should certainly have heard.

Engagement matters. It really matters. But it has to be on the customer’s terms. Otherwise customers appear happy and all is well. Until they’re not. By which time it’s too late.

Engagement matters.

Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.