Even the most moronic client can spot fake corporate chumminess

Opinion: businesses’ chumminess is acceptable only when not too blatantly self-interested

“‘Hello Lucy. How are you today? ;)’ Ajay typed.  ‘Fine,’ I typed back. ‘Cool! ;) I’m certain I can help you with this.’” Photograph: Getty Images

“‘Hello Lucy. How are you today? ;)’ Ajay typed. ‘Fine,’ I typed back. ‘Cool! ;) I’m certain I can help you with this.’” Photograph: Getty Images

Mon, May 26, 2014, 01:00

One day in 1995, back when the land line and the postage stamp were enjoying their last hurrah, I put in a call to directory enquiries. In those days, if you didn’t know a phone number, you dialled 192 and a human being looked it up and read it out to you.

On that particular day, the woman at the other end answered the phone with: “Directories, Michelle speaking.”

Perplexed, I asked why she had just told me her name. She said it was a new policy designed to make the service more personal. How vulgar, I thought. How gratuitously chummy. How American. I turned to the hulking cathode ray tube that sat on my desk and bashed out a column protesting that I didn’t want personal. I just wanted a phone number.

After nearly two decades spent bobbing about on the rising tide of gratuitous chumminess, I no longer especially mind when people like Michelle introduce themselves. There are bigger things to worry about.

The other day I bought a dress on eBay. When it arrived a card fell out. “We hope you had a nice and relaxing holiday break and enjoy the new dress you’ve purchased,” it said. “Have an awesome week and we look forward to serving you again in the near future. Simon and Laurie.”

Overly solicitous Things have gone rather wrong, I reflected, when Simon and Laurie, whom I have never met or heard of, are more solicitous about my happiness and wellbeing than members of my own family.

A couple of days later I was online trying to cancel my subscription to Sky Go and found myself having a “Live Chat”, which involves typing words into a bubble.

“Hello Lucy. How are you today? ;)” Ajay typed.

“Fine,” I typed back.

“Cool! ;) I’m certain I can help you with this.” After a further snowstorm of smiley faces and professions of willingness to help, it emerged that he couldn’t. “I hope that was helpful ;). Take care!” he signed off.

This exchange was relatively chilly by comparison to a live chat posted on Reddit from an Xbox user with an employee called Kelly, who at one point typed: “You’re such an understanding person. I wish I can give you a cup of coffee or cold Mountain Dew for that!”

Borderline sinister No doubt Kelly thought – like Michelle – that she was just making the service more personal. In fact, she was making it borderline sinister.

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