Small Insults, Heavy Toll

When our complex lives don’t fit into a corporate model, we pay a heavy toll.

Last week at the airport, I checked my bags and watched them pass from trolley to baggage scanner to conveyor belt. Only when they disappeared down a chute did I stir myself. Why had I stood there frozen for 20 minutes? My trust is shot. If there is such a thing as commercial-transaction post-traumatic stress disorder (CTPTSD), I have it. It stems from a clash of two opposing realities — mine and theirs.


Take my side: My life is, well, complex. I have a loving husband, two small people for whom I am the center of the universe, all our schedules, my mother, my students, lectures, articles, books, colleagues, clients, readers, email, planes, trains, and automobiles. Not to mention today’s specials: a dishwasher that thinks it’s Niagara Falls and several chairs so overdue for reupholstery that houseguests have taken to politely asking where they can make donations. I’m sure you can relate.

On their side, relentless commoditization has created a nasty competitive environment. They don’t have the time, tools, or inclination to know me, much less help me. It’s more efficient to treat me like all the rest. They want to automate, outsource, force me to do more of the problem solving, and charge me extra when my life spills outside their lines.

When our paths collide, this is what happens: A transaction crisis occurs, a small murder. We’ve all been victims of these frustrations.

Transaction starvation: In the name of cost reduction, the front line of the organization is starved for resources: wages, people, time, information, problem-solving authority, expertise, motivation, and flexibility. The HMO that took over the local hospital wants my family doctor to see eight patients an hour, with only one receptionist for a six-doctor practice to manage the traffic jam. In big companies, work is off-loaded to customers, or their problems are farmed out to call centers with productivity incentives designed to limit each call. So when my new computer monitor didn’t work, I spent 3 hours and 17 minutes trying to get service. I suffered through excruciating conversations with helpless employees at three different 800-numbers, and I had to arrange to return it!

Transaction inflation: Instead of the price going up, the original product shrinks. To get “whole,” you have to buy extras, pumping up the transaction value. Check your hotel bill, rental-car agreement, hospital bill, restaurant tab, or telco bill for those extra fees. I buy an airline ticket, but my plans change. I need to leave a few hours earlier. Same day, same airport, same airline, and there’s space. My punishment for having a real life is a $150 penalty fee. But the chutzpah award goes to banks that charge us for holding our money and then again when we withdraw some at an ATM that earns no wages or benefits.

Product tyranny: The idea here is to wring the most from each transaction, irrespective of the customer. The attitude: Take it or leave it. The classic is yield management. Hotels price the same room differently on a weekday or weekend, depending on demand. There’s one hotel where I have spent about 25 nights a year for the past eight years. I recently tried to book a night well in advance but was told I would have to stay three nights at triple my normal rate due to high demand that week.


Relationship mimicry: The transaction is dressed up to look like a relationship, until there’s a conflict that hits the P&L, and then it’s revealed to be just another one-night stand. How about the insurance agent who has collected premiums for years, then failed to go to bat when a legitimate claim was denied?

Or how about my friend and his “relationship manager” at his bank? He paid his monthly mortgage fees, and the bank was supposed to pay his quarterly property taxes. One day, he came home to find an eviction notice. The bank hadn’t been paying the city for nearly two years. Frantic calls to his banker yielded only weak apologies. He was stuck with back payments plus interest.

Everybody loses in the transaction crisis — customers, employees, companies, and the economy, too. With so many people alienated from companies today, the whole economy is deprived of the value trapped in their needs. Transaction value was sufficient in a world of mass consumers buying toasters and teacups, but in our new world of complex individuals, relationship value is the key to long-term growth. The good news? Millions of us want to recover from CTPTSD. Invent the cure, and you will have us all for customers.

Shoshana Zuboff is a professor at Harvard Business School. Join Zuboff’s online discussion (