Well the heading is not quite as intriguing as “The cook, the thief, his wife and her lover” but it’s certainly an interesting tale of what goes wrong in corporations when they automate services at the expense of humans.


Last year the very expensive lease on my multi-function copier/fax/scanner/printer/teeth whitener/coffee machine ran its course. The supplier was a client of mine – let’s call them Copier Company X.

Prior to the end of the lease, I rang their accounts department as they were the only people with any ‘relationship’ with me. I hadn’t heard from any account manager in the 5 years as a customer. I asked what I needed to do and they said, keep paying the same monthly amount or get a new machine and new lease. I no longer had the need for this high-fangled piece of technology. I was due to move premises at the end of the year – in about 6 months. I wanted a cheaper option.

They couldn’t help me. But sure enough in the week the lease ran out I got a call from a sales person trying to sell me an even more expensive piece of equipment.

Sidebar – if you work in the advertising or marketing business, you’ll know that we no longer print loads of colour pages to make up mock-ups of concepts, samples or artwork. People now use PDFs on screen to view/approve much of what was once a tangible printed sample. So the volume of colour prints (known as clicks in the copier trade) has declined dramatically in many businesses.

When the salesperson arrived I explained that I wanted to get rid of the existing piece of equipment and needed a short term solution. You’d have thought I had stuck him in the eye with a blunt stick. When he realised I wasn’t going to fund his kids through private school – after all I’m only the customer – the salesman left without offering me an option, apart from spending more money.

So I was stuck with the existing rental price. I promptly started shopping around for an alternative – it’s not an easy thing to get a short term rental of said equipment, but I persevered. Eventually I found a company that could solve my problem, for about 20% of the monthly price I had been paying Company X. Let’s call the new copier supplier, Company L.

I rang Company X’s accounts department – my relationship person – and advised them to collect their machine and to cancel the monthly direct debit. They said ‘no problem’ and we arranged the pick-up.

One month later, after the machine had been collected, they stole a monthly lease payment from my bank account. I immediately rang them and they apologised and said they would return the funds.

Unfortunately Company X’s understanding of return of funds was different to mine. I thought they’d send me money, after all they have my bank details. But no, they issued a credit on my account – an account that is now closed and for which I have no use. Frantic calls to my relationship person and correspondence from me have been ignored. I even emailed the CEO, whom I know personally but no reply – damn sp*m filters?? So I am still wasting my time having to threaten a (now former) client with a potential lawsuit.

But wait, there’s more. As mentioned I moved office last December. I dutifully rang Company L and advised them of same and we agreed a date for collection of the very efficient, much cheaper, multi-function thingy. They collected the machine as agreed and all was in order.

The rental agreement on this machine ended on the date it was collected from my office. Yet this month I received an invoice for rental for the month of January. I haven’t had the machine since mid-December. How can their accounts system be so bad? Is incompetence native to the photocopier industry? Maybe the multi-function device includes a customer fleecing function?

So now I’m wasting time talking with an accounts person interstate, trying to sort it out because their system doesn’t show the machine has been returned. So they believe I owe them money. Aaaaggghhh!

This is what happens when companies automate systems at the expense of humans. The simple fact is, the more you automate, the more you need humans to manage the automation. Automation might appear more efficient, but only if the humans that input the data in the first place do so correctly. In both cases these accounting errors have occurred because of human error. And now they’ve become my human horror.

Marketers are falling into the same trap with automation software – I keep getting late night phone calls from an auto-dialer in the US sending me pre-recorded customer service messages in US business hours. Automation is fine, but it needs a layer of human intelligence.

If you assume the computers will look after it, you risk damage to your brand. Just as social media is a costly labour-intensive activity, so is systems automation.

I’ve just opened my mail. My good friends at Aussie Post have sent me an invoice for $0.00 with a bold phrase that I may incur a late payment penalty if I don’t settle the account.

Now I know why people drink before lunch…hic