In Australia, as elsewhere, many government agencies are grasping the nettle of customer-centricity. They engage with the public at all levels, design services to meet user needs, and attempt to implement continuous improvement.
Some agencies, however, want to continue to avoid being stung by the nettle.
A recent interaction with VicRoads provides a kind of master-class for how to avoid engagement, and I’ve tried to dissect the interaction here, both to understand it from a personal perspective, and perhaps to help me or others when designing services to either facilitate or avoid interaction with the public.
By way of background, VicRoads manages the arterial road network in the Australian state of Victoria. As one might expect they have a customer charter and the various other mandated “motherhood statements” on their website (https://www.vicroads.vic.gov.au/).
I sent a letter to them to query the removal of a pedestrian access crossing to a local railway station and to suggest how they could help redress the situation. The details don’t really matter here, but my letter included a full description with geolocation and an annotated map.
In dealing with the letter, VicRoads applied several effective and noteworthy stonewalling tactics.
1. Change the medium
A correspondent is likely to have a general expectation that an organisation will use their preferred communication medium. Breaking this expectation is an excellent – and simple – step towards throwing them off-balance.
As it happens I had used mail in order to include a map, since their online submission facility does not support attachments – a brilliant tactic in itself.
2. Change the level of formality
My letter began with a salutation “Dear Sir/Madam.”
VicRoads’ email response began “Hi Gerry.” While echoing is a well-known technique for establishing and maintaining rapport, too many government agencies fail to realise that echo neglect can be just as powerful in achieving the opposite effect.
In this instance, the change has a strong subtext, letting me know that my original communication was informal or downright frivolous, and would be treated accordingly.
3. Be bureaucratic
The subject line of my letter was “RE: Compromised accessibility and pedestrian access “
VicRoads brilliantly entitled their email response “Re: VicRoads Enquiry Ref No. 501092988.”
This helps the recipient understand that they are dealing with a machine that has no soul, and sets an appropriately low expectation.
4. Ignore questions
My letter had asked a specific question about modelling of pedestrian flows. VicRoads neither referenced it nor responded to it.
It can be difficult for organisations to achieve this level of passive-aggression, as staff will frequently be tempted to engage with the crux of a query. VicRoads is to be commended for its resoluteness.
5. Ignore suggested solutions
My letter suggested a relatively small design change (the addition of a pedestrian phase to a traffic light). This was ignored.
The tactic of ignoring a suggestion is particularly powerful. It reinforces the understanding that the correspondent is wasting their time and would be well advised to go away.
6. Apply ad-hominem logic
VicRoads' email response included the following sentence: “I understand that it may be inconvenient for you to cross to lights.”
My letter had not mentioned any inconvenience to myself. (As it happens I rarely use the station, and I am fit enough to “jaywalk,” so I am not inconvenienced.)
However, by applying this logic, it was made clear that VicRoads is sick of listening to whining from the likes of me, and why don’t I go away?
7. Be brief
VicRoads compressed their entire response into a single short paragraph. This communicates that VicRoads is busy and please stop bothering them.
8. Be anonymous
VicRoads’ email ended:
“Denis” may exist, or may be a nom-de-plume, but in any case is effectively anonymous.
Perhaps VicRoads has put considerable thought into the name “Denis.” Originally from the Greek god of wine, it conjures up an affable but slightly frazzled older gentleman with elbow pads in his tweed jacket. Perhaps it comes from a set of approved names.
9. The pièce de résistance
The ultimate way to kill a conversation is to stop listening. The final line of VicRoads’ email reads:
“NOTE: Please do not reply to this email as the mailbox is unattended.”
I was very impressed with VicRoads’ response. I understood immediately that VicRoads does not care to consider my letter, does not care to reply, and does not care to hear from me any further.
To my mind, this is an exemplary piece of work. Other organisations that wish to avoid customer-centricity should adopt at least some of the tactics used so adroitly by VicRoads.