% fortune -ae paul murphy

An IT productivity horror story

I heard a story last week, but got no details and don't know how true it is.

According to the story a mid range insurance broker here is sending about 90% of its business to one insurance carrier - for the specific reason that this carrier is the only one they deal with that has not automated its approval, billing, and payment systems with respect to independent brokers.

According to the story, almost all carriers have automated these kinds of product/customer interfaces - and the automation is such a pain to deal with; and so limited, rigid, and error prone; that the brokers simply prefer to wait out the two week turn-around for the non-automated, but generally courteous, flexible, and correct, carrier.

The story resonates with me because I generally detest dealing with almost any kind of automated customer interface and particularly those put together by people suffering from data processing syndrome - a mental disease that doesn't yet have its own DSM-IV code but is generally characterized by a complete lack of customer empathy; the imposition of limitations and processes that seem utterly illogical to the customer because they silently put data center assumptions and practices ahead of process coherence and customer perception; and, use of a controlled, but externally unintelligible, vocabulary.

Complex IVR applications put together by governments and utilities are, for example, often just unsubtle ways of waving the collective organizational middle finger in the customer's face - and there are a lot more customer hostile web sites like Air Canada's than most of us like to think about.

What I don't have, however, are real numbers: what are the business and economic losses due to this kind of thing? This broker is side-stepping business hassles at a cost to his customers, to the detriment of most of the carriers whose products he nominally sells, and to the benefit of the one company that maintains a human interface to his business.

So who pays? and how much? is there a business opportunity in "de-automation"? I don't know - but I'd like to collect a few comments and stories to see whether there's emotional depth to the proposition that a rebellion against some forms of automation may be brewing.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.