Monday, March 21, 2011

Why Corporations Aren't People

Almost twenty years ago, when my mother passed away, I had occasion to do some transactions with various banks. Most were straightforward but one of the largest in California gave me a very hard time, and I determined not to do business with them again.

Then recently another bank credit card had a limit on its cash back rewards which I reached, and at the same time the large bank advertised a friendly no limits reward policy. So I signed up.

After my first two purchases I received a phone message with no identification from “Credit Card Services” asking me to call back. When I did they wouldn’t tell me which bank and said it was a “courtesy call.”

I wanted to know who it was and called back, finally learning that it was the new credit card bank, not a surprise, and they said my account had been flagged for security.

I asked for what purchases they needed a confirmation and they indicated a $20 grocery charge I had made that day. I suggested that if they continued to call me for every charge and didn’t identify themselves on the phone I would not be a customer, and the calls stopped.

Then I finally had a cash reward available for $52.55 and wanted my cash. To get the cash sent online was a very complicated process and it had to be in $25 increments, meaning I could not get the full amount.

So I called and was told that the reason for the $25 increment was simply their “policy”, which was repeated by an indifferent supervisor with no attempt to empathize or see my point of view.

I understand their—obviously by withholding some money they keep me using the card. But at least make an attempt to see the customer’s perspective—not even the usual saccharine “we apologize for the inconvenience” from the supervisor.

I chalked it up to business as usual until I got a Customer Service survey form in email. I thought, wow, maybe they really have some semblance of interest and I can comment on my experience. That’s when I saw this in the email:

When you reach the login screen, please enter the following information:

Your project ID is: y8234x

Your login ID is: 9823456

Your password is: nrtfs

(Information is changed in the above example)

I mean really, what human would come up with a procedure like this for providing feedback, presumably to show a level of concern for the customer?

Human life is complicated enough. But as motivated as I was to perhaps indicate to them how unfeeling and indifferent they had already been, this proved to me that they had no comprehension of just how inconsiderate this request is.

This is just a small but meaningful example of the hoops that institutions put us through that make our lives so challenging today—because if we fail to comply with these “arbitrary policies” which are always for the institution’s benefit and not for ours, we know that we are in for a nightmare of bureaucratic red tape to straighten out the inevitable mess.

What makes it even worse is to watch the commercials for these companies on TV, or God forbid, to read their mission statements. One would think that the needs of the customer and care and consideration would be uppermost in their priorities. We’re always “part of the family”, dysfunctional as that family might be.

Give me a company that tells the truth. They didn’t invent the product to make our lives better and because they care—they are in it to make money.

And that is of course the crux of the matter.

Companies aren’t human because that is their real purpose, to increase the digits on a balance sheet.

The fact that humans (more or less) set the policies that maximize profit is irrelevant; the reality is that corporations are an abstraction that exist for an abstract concept: profit.

One can hear arguments that they do community work (for PR to increase profits) and provide jobs (which pay very little these days except for the exalted policy-makers)—and some of this might be mitigating factors if it weren’t for one thing.


The example of the log in procedure, the unwanted phone calls and the televised offer of a user friendly credit card all point to the unlevel playing field between corporations and humans.

Because of our humanity—we experience the fear that lack of compliance can engender and the overwhelming presence of their megalithic intrusion into our lives and find ourselves at the mercy of these figments of human imagination.

The power struggle that looms, now that the Supreme Court has qualified them as “human” entities with rights, may well mirror or rival the intensity of the current conflicts in the Middle East.

The central problem is the worship of money and the imbalance in power between these giant electronic entities and the humans that need to deal with them.

If humans don’t wise up, things will get worse. Of course we can always fill in a customer satisfaction form – then everything will be ok.

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