People Matter; Not Numbers

This is an article I wrote for LinkedIn Pulse in January, 2016:

My bike slid out from under me, it was a curve I handle without thinking a half a dozen times a week, but today I was too careless in the light rain and I went down, my 60 year old head hitting the pavement. Hard. My shoulder, hip, knee, and elbow hit hard too, and I feared for the worse. As the crash happened, I had this odd series of thoughts, as if narrating what could have easily been my last  seconds, “No time to brace, there’s the impact, wow, my head is hitting the ground, but I have a helmet, must be below the helmet.” Then the pain hit, my head especially, and things went a little black: but I pulled out, I didn’t completely black out. As I sat up and took inventory, “Blood on fingers, my rain jacket saved me from bad road rash on my arms, my knuckles were bleeding, but nothing seems too broken. My hip and arm were going to be bruised. Helmet cracked wide open, my head only hit the pavement after the helmet broke my fall, that’s good!”

I survived and as I took inventory a jogger, one I’d past a minute or so before and who clearly had seen my mishap, continued towards me, and I took a breath, prepared to assuage him of his concern, no I was Okay, I hadn’t died, I was embarrassed and sore but mostly my pride was hurt, but I think I needed to call for a ride.

He never looked directly at me, asked me a question, or in any other way acknowledged my presence on this planet, he ran to within a yard of me and without missing a step he turned around and jogged the other way; leaving me to the vultures (or at least to my own devices). He’d had his Good Samaritan opportunity and he passed, he ran on, his morning jog uninterrupted.

I wanted to kill him. For a moment, I felt rage, then, disbelief. In the world I grew up in, you offered to help someone who might need help. Not his.

Later, after my wife came to pick me up (my IPhone somehow survived the crash better than I did), and, under ice, I began to dwell on my fellow morning exercise participant and his choice to ignore me. I thought of Kitty Genovese and her 1964 murder, and the indifference of New Yorkers who heard her cries for help, so choosing to “mind one’s own business” was nothing new. There was the chance that this guy was unbelievably perceptive, saw my wreck, deemed that I was fine, and chose not to embarrass me at that moment; I’d give that slightly less odds then the fact that he was just a bad guy (at least bad from my point of view, at this particular moment, he was a bad guy, I’m sure, a fine fellow otherwise.)

This guy’s character flaws not withstanding, I think there is still a comment on society here: other people aren’t real anymore. The joggers willingness to move on is something we should expect in this post Google world. We no longer live in small villages where we meet on the green every morning or at church on Sunday. We are independent units who can choose to only meet digital representations of each other on-line. When we are away from our screens, in the real world, we forget that we can’t just click “block” or “unfriend” the real humans. Real people don’t fit our schedule.

We are marketed to by algorithms,  based on surveys and clicks. We are all faceless, nameless sources of capital for major corporations and we willingly sign up for the virtual journey. We replace neighbors and friends with digital representations of celebrities, and we create our own digital versions of what our life looks like. “An almost dead old guy off his bike? Dislike, block, move on.” Today’s status: “I jogged this morning, now off to church!”

That’s all fine until you go to work and happen to work in a business that somehow has to take care of real people (that would be, like, every business.) The first thing you should learn in college statistics is that “Statistics don’t apply to individuals.” If your product has a 99% satisfaction rate, it has a 100% dissatisfaction rate to  that 1 guy in a hundred who is unhappy with you. If you let a robot (or a part time high school kid) be your front line of dealing with real people, you are eventually going to lose out to a company who understands how to talk to real people.

Not long ago there was a ball game on TV that turned out to be a very big upset and the sports network ran a crawl on the bottom of the screen saying that the winning team “only had an 8% chance of winning the game.” No, what really happened was the forecasting algorithm had a 100% chance of being wrong. And if you work for a company that is concerned with getting something “mostly right” and willing to let a certain amount of unsatisfied customers walk away because your business model is built on large numbers, you risk having unsatisfied people feel the same way about you that I felt about my not so good Samaritan, deep anger bordering on hatred.

A business based on algorithms doesn’t see people, it sees numbers of people. It finds the lowest common denominator and inevitably it provides the lowest possible level of service. Outliers are discarded, not accommodated. Real people, with real issues, get in the way of perfect bell curves.

It’s easy to leave customers who need help, have fallen off their bikes, or who can’t quite connect with you lying there to solve their own problems, but understand that you have lost a potential customer for life. An airline that destroys my luggage and denies responsibility, the server who gets my order wrong and won’t fix it, and the doctor who won’t take the time to answer a patient’s questions are all missing an opportunity to rescue a person who needs help.

I can tell you that my business, a financial planning firm, is in competition with everything from online brokers to robo-advisors, yet we are doing some of our best business because we are people who actually talk to people, we take on the load when a customer has an issue and help solve real problems. Those clients are clients for life, they aren’t going to run off the next time they have an excuse, they appreciate that we are there with them, especially when they need something.

I could have used that friend in those moments when I had fallen, for one of the few times in my life, I was in need of help: my jogger’s business model didn’t include making a loyal friend for life or helping strangers. That’s too bad, his on-line friends would have been impressed with his status update about us.

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