it's only language…

In an earlier posting I referred to why business people speak like idiots – a great title to a book I borrowed from the library. In that posting I used the example of a weapons manufacturer and the ridiculous irony of their 60-something page ethical guidelines.

I like the opening sentence to the ‘idiots’ book so much I have to use it again:

Let’s face it: Business today is drowning in bullshit.

See… today, I had first hand experience with this – and I’m sure we all have similar examples. And then to be fair, there are those positive examples of a business actually doing what they ‘celebrate’ in their literature and their ‘invest in us’ campaign material.

For many years in the late 1990s I had an internet account with Island Internet a small, but relatively effective company based on Vancouver Island. Sometime a few years back, corporate consolidation kicked in and a company out of the Lower Mainland – Uniserve – purchased Island Internet and they have continued to gobble up small time internet providers across Canada.

By the time Uniserve bought them out, I didn’t require Internet service; however, kept my email-only account for a few dollars a month. I figured why not, even with free email services, it’s nice to have an email address that hasn’t changed in over ten years. I generally just make a lump sum payment to cover most of the year.

At this point, I have been a customer with them for about 13 years. The last two days I have been unable to access my email on this particular account. I phone the company to find out what the issue is.

As is to be expected I began a conversation with an individual with a rather heavy accent. I’ll be clear, I have no qualms with this – however, my experience is that generally very little headway can be made. My most vivid example having been trying to find Air Canada lost luggage last Christmas, speaking with a customer service agent who I had to ask repeatedly for him to repeat himself – and vice versa him asking me.

As I find out today, apparently my email only account had been cut off because I had $1.78 outstanding on my account. Yes, that is under two dollars. I asked my heavily accented friend on the other end of the line if he could simply just turn it on – we’re talking about $1.78. I’ll simply just make another lump sum payment for the bulk of the year.

“Oh no sir, I cannot be doing that.”

I was perplexed and asked why not. He explained it was company policy. I suggested, it’s company policy to quibble over a few cents and potentially lose a decade long customer – “really?” I asked. “Are you sure?”

I got the long litany (and scripted) “sir, I understand your frustration but my hands are tied”.(One of the most oft-used lines of a government bureaucrat…)

Oh, that famous line…. “my hands are tied”.

I suggested that maybe I needed to speak to someone that didn’t have their hands tied. I asked to speak to a supervisor.

“No, I’m sorry sir all of our supervisors are busy. It’s a very busy day and they are on other calls.”

“Ok, I’ll wait on the line with you until one is available”.

“Oh no sir, it’s a very busy day and I need to get on to other callers.”

“So you’re telling me to get lost?”, I said with a laugh.

“No sir, I understand your frustration maybe you could phone back in 30 minutes to speak to a supervisor”.

“No, rather than go through all of your automated recordings, press this to go here, press this to go there, plus waiting on hold for 5-10 minutes to speak to someone – I’m just going to wait on the phone with you until a supervisor becomes available.”

“Well, sir, they’re very busy with other callers.”

“I’m sure one will get off the phone at some point – I’ll wait. You could even just put me on hold and then when one is available, I’ll be right here. Just think I’ve phoned a 1-800 number so this doesn’t cost you anything. It’ll probably cost more than the $1.78 that I owe to have a supervisor call me.”

This carried on for quite some time. I finally gave the poor fellow a reprieve, asked him exactly when today I would get a call back.

“15-30 minutes sir, probably 60 minutes at the most”

“Ok I’ll be waiting”.

I got off the phone knowing I was getting no return call. Was most likely not speaking to a Uniserve employee. And most likely not speaking to someone on this continent. So I logged on to my account paid the $1.78 by credit card and got back on the phone.

I got a new ‘customer service’ rep and explained the situation. She turned my account back on. I asked her if she could point to the policy that the previous agent had insisted he was following.

“Oh well sir you’ll have to go to Uniserve’s website to get the terms and conditions of your service with them.”

“Well”, I explained. “I never agreed to their terms and services because I signed on with a different company that got bought out by Uniserve.”

“Oh well, sir… umm… oh…”

“So can you tell me are you actually a Uniserve employee?”

“Well, sir, our offices in Canada are experiencing higher than normal call volume so this call center is handling it – all I can suggest is send an email to their accounts department. Your call is the second one today that I have dealt with similar circumstances – the last fellow was just over $3”

“So you’re not a Uniserve employee and there is no supervisor there for me to speak to”

“All I can suggest is send the email sir and I’ll put another note on your account to have someone phone you”.

OK, you probably get my drift here. Needless to say, no one phoned back. And better yet, in the time that that $1.78 owing had me cut off – all the emails sent during that time have disappeared into oblivion.

The part that cracks me up further is that if I go to Uniserve’s website they state:

Our Service Philosophy

A dedication to service excellence is a defining value of great organizations and Uniserve Communications is committed to developing a service standard that sets us apart from others. Focus is constantly given to increasing human contact and understanding what convenience means to our customers.

Across Canada, customers turn to Uniserve for quality service….and award-winning customer service.

Really? – wow!

Bringing this back to float somewhere near the context of this blog let me quote Australian Don Watson from his book Death Sentences: How clichés, weasel words, and management-speak are strangling public language:

…in the last half of the 1980s… I came across Total Quality Management (TQM). I was curious about TQM and I believed people who told me about the wonders it worked in companies. But when asked to write it in attractive or plain English I did not know how. I could not distinguish the thoughts from the phrases in which they came. As one cannot separate cement from cement, one cannot say “a structured system for satisfying internal and external customers and suppliers by integrating the business environment, continuous improvement, and breakthroughs with development, improvement, and maintenance cycles while changing organizational culture” without saying “structured system,” satisfying internal and external customers,” “integrating the business environment,” “continuous improvement,” and so on. In this language the only thing left to a writer is to shuffle the phrases and experiment with verbs…

In time, I learned that this was the beauty of management jargon, the unbreakable code. Anyone could write it and, with little practice, speak it, and just to write or speak the stuff was to prove you were professional: so professional that every underling who could not crack the code must imitate you. The miracle was that once you knew a dozen or so “key” or “core” term, once you were “focused” on them, thought was scarcely necessary. In fact writing like this was best done, and perhaps could only be done, without thinking at all.

All resistance was in vain, of course. The Information Revolution came in on top of the Management Revolution. The Technological Revolution tumbled in with both of them. Economics were global. Markets were free, at least ideologically speaking. The unstoppable tide washed into all corners of our lives. The local library got a mission statement; the church called its mission to the poor “excellence in hospitality”; the kindergarten became outcomes-based; and, entering into the spirit of marketing and focus groups, politics turned “values-based” and worked primarily in messages.

Much that we used to call society became the economy, and being an information economy, language was drafted to its service. Everywhere — public and private, all levels of government and all government agencies… – the language was coopted, hacked about, gutted. Worlds of meaning — the cultural equivalent of many lakes, rain forests, and species — disappeared. And hardly a voice was heard protesting.

Yes, management speak, business speak, is a scourge upon saying what we actually mean. Unfortunately, management-speak – that tool developed to improve the corporate game – pervades almost every government institution. It especially pervades every government institution dealing with natural systems. We cannot predict the weather with any long-term accuracy, so why do we think we can predict animal populations and how many of those animals we can eat?

My case in point – see if you recognize this litany of management-speak that says a lot without saying much at all:

Expectations for the management of Pacific salmon today require a more proactive, forward-looking approach that sets clear conservation goals and acknowledges the importance of protecting biodiversity for sustaining diverse healthy wild salmon populations, their habitats, and associated benefits.

This policy describes how DFO will meet its responsibilities for the conservation of wild Pacific salmon. It stipulates an overall policy goal for wild salmon, identifies basic principles to guide resource management decision-making, and sets out objectives and strategies to achieve the goal (Figure 1).

Of course, my cynical side can’t help but ask – if we’re moving to a “proactive forward thinking approach” – what the hell were we on before?

Now this is the capper… wait for it… as this diagram is supposed to give all Canadians comfort that wild salmon are well cared for….

I’m not sure… does the “performance review” at the bottom of the strategies refer to salmon or people?

Why don’t they just say:

Our Service Philosophy

A dedication to service excellence is a defining value of great organizations and Fisheries and Oceans Canada is committed to developing a service standard that sets us apart from others. Focus is constantly given to increasing human and salmon contact and understanding what convenience means to our customers.

In the conclusion to Watson’s book, he suggests workplace moratoriums on bafflegab, management-speak, jargon.

This will improve the public language, first, by ridding it of some dull and stupid pests; second, by obliging writers, speakers, and researchers to rediscover good words that have fallen into disuse; and third, by encouraging those responsible for what the rest of us have to read and hear to respect our most precious cultural inheritance.

I’m with him on that suggestion.

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