February 11, 2006

Polite Incompetence

I occasionally keep in touch with various non-technical blogs (if only to pretend to myself that I have a life outside of technology). One such blog is that of Seth Godin, who appears to concern himself professionally with marketing. Seth's current latest post is to be found at


and said piece ends with a heartfelt question:
The folks at Eata Pita don't get the Hearing, Listening, Action scenario.

You get it, it's obvious. So why don't they?
Well, there's a good reason why they don't: it's a lot cheaper to keep the payroll down and provice a crappy service than it is to take the effort to supply your customers with what they actually want. Most consumers are so focused on achieving the lowest possible cost of acquisition that they don't critically evaluate whether what their money buys them is what they really want or need. The remaining five percent are vocal about what's wrong with what they have received, but only after they have received (and therefore paid for) it and are thus stranded without leverage.

This puts me in mind of my erstwhile neighbor Simon Hacker's theory of "polite incompetence". The US (and specifically the Virginia) employment market is currently so under-supplied that employers find it profitable to employ someone who clearly does not possess the skills to provide the goods or services that the employer contracts to provide. As long as the incompetent employees are polite enough, and apologetic enough about not being able to give the necessary service, that they avoid giving offense to the customer their employers, incredibly, manage to stay ahead of the game.

Where once we would have voted with our feet (not to mention our wallets) and gone to some other supplier, we now apparently choose to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous (but inoffensive) incompetence rather than tell the people we deal with that they clearly do not know what they are talking about and take our business elsewhere.

Adam Smith must be turning in his grave.

I am happy to say that there are still bargains to be had if one bothers to look, and among these I count the Complete Care contract for my Dell Inspiron 9200. The system is now just over a year old and until a month or so ago had been operating without missing a beat. Lately it has developed an intermittent fault which, when present, appears to replicate the same scan line across the whole of the screen. The intermittent nature of the fault meant that I have been unable to collaborate with Dell's fault-finding process but they have noentheless already replaced the video card. Since the fault is still present I expect to see another engineer (but this time in Boston: the last fault call was handled in Philadelphia).

Several people have enquired what I paid for this laptop and, when I told them, have expressed the opinion that they could have bought it for less. Which indeed they might for all I know. As far as I'm concerned the Complete Care contract is non-negotiable, and terrific value for money. Without the contract I might have been compelled to part with my system (possibly several times) to allow the Dell support group to repair it. The on-site repair alone is worth the cost of the maintenance contract. Had I not been supported in this way you would not now be able to read this blog (no exaggeration).

So, do you think I'm going to buy some Brand X laptop next time around? I seriously doubt it. Thank you, Dell! See you when I need a new laptop (and hopefully not before :-)

No comments: