Sunday, November 18, 2007

Trends: The “Gotcha” Trend

It used to be con-men (and women) who used confidence games to trick unwary or unsophisticated individuals out of their money. They would gain the individual’s confidence, then take their money. Many of these tricks focused on the individual’s greed and the apparent opportunity to make money, like the “pigeon drop’ or the Nigerian letter. Then there was an increase in ways to take money from people who simply trusted too much, often the very old or very young.
The age of computers accelerated the trend, and gave lots more people the opportunity to work cons or scams on larger audiences. It seemed as though as more people became scammers, the concept of cheating people, particularly the less sophisticated, became more acceptable. Now big corporations appear to take it for granted that it is their right to take advantage of the public. I began to suspect there was a required course in the MBA programs that taught graduates how to take advantage of people.
The age of “the customer is always right” has pretty much passed. We now seem to be in the age that tests the customer’s tolerance for outrageous acts. Increase the fees. Increase the penalties. Increase the pressure. Demand payments further in advance for subscriptions and memberships. Stall payments. Stall cancellations. Work on other people’s time and money.
None of this is new. But it is a trend that seems to be accelerating, pushing the ethical and moral boundaries. And it is becoming part of our lives. And your children’s lives. And your parent’s lives.
ISPs are a good example. I remember trying to cancel a subscription to AOL. I thought I would have to cancel my credit card! MSN was a little easier, but I still had to talk to a live persona after a long wait. About the only time you can talk to a live person anymore! The major banks have pushed the boundaries with credit cards, pushing them at populations who appear less sophisticated. Easy marks. Teens and early twenties, before they get wise to the ways of the world. People with low credit scores (just like sub-prime mortgages) who want credit and will pay exorbitant fees.
Why do I bring this up in a blog about personal futures? Because this is a trend that will envelope you in the future. And it will continue until it gets so bad that state and federal legislatures will have to take action. When the value of votes exceeds the value of lobbyist funding.
This is the point. If you are aware of a trend, you can develop strategies and take actions to take advantage of the trend or, in this case, prevent the trend from taking advantage of you.
The example that brought this to mind and into this blog was an email I received this week from Norton/Symantec. I’ve used their anti-virus software for a few years and last year, I renewed on line. My mistake. Like many firms, they ask if you want automatic renewal. I usually click or unclick to indicate “No.” I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here and assume I mistakenly accepted their offer. Last week I received an email late in the day (9:32 PM November 14) advising that it was time to renew and I would be automatically renewed if I did not cancel. By the previous day (Nov 13)! This was, of course, sent by non-reply email.
You may have to read that paragraph again, but it’s true. All done automatically by their software. If accused of manipulating against their customers, Norton would, of course, tell us that there was a simple software error that is being corrected. In the meantime, how many customers give up in frustration and accept another year of service that they didn’t want? And I believe that is the key. The financial guys have found that by cheating a little with their customers, they can make more than enough money to pay for any consequences. They can comfortably write off customers who fight their way through the system. So this trend will continue.
But…trends are like pendulums. They can only go so far in one direction, then they reverse direction. The very success of an accelerating trend leads to its eventual reversal. In this case, that could be customer outrage, but more likely an economic decline or recession. In either case, when customers stop buying a service or product, businesses tend to change their ways and do whatever is necessary to woo their customers back. They may reduce prices or fees, or even start treating the customers like…well, customers!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

When do you start? When do you stop?

From time to time, people tell me “I’m too old to worry about the future.” The other side is when I’m asked “When are my children (or grandchildren) old enough to think about their future?”

My short answer: people should be thinking about their future at any age that they can do something about their future.

When teen agers start making decisions about their lives; what classes to take in high school, how much education they will pursue, what careers or jobs look interesting or whom whey may marry. They are starting to think and act on their future. At that age, many decisions or thoughts are simply reactions (have to fill in the blanks on a form) or responses to peer actions or pressures (“My friends are going to college” or “My friends belong to gangs).

In my opinion this is the time when young people should be given the opportunity and the tools to explore their possible futures, and to understand the long term consequences of their actions. Frankly, I believe that many young people simply drift into their futures with very little of their own thought. Many decisions before age twenty are made on emotion or peer pressure more than serious thought.
I also believe that teenagers who understand the future effects of their decisions or actions would be less likely to drop out of school or become involved in crime.

I won’t go any further down this path of “I believe…” because I recognize I have my own biases. But my own experiences tell me that people who have thought about the future and made a plan for the future have a better chance of achieving a future they want.

But let’s move on to the other end of the age scale. When are you too old to think about or plan for the future? I have talked to a lot of groups of older people (over 60). I’ve also done considerable research in this age group, and I’m surprised how many people say they are already too old to think about or plan for their future (A frequent response is “ I don’t even buy green bananas any more!”)

To a futurist, those responses are a little distressing. On the other hand, when I probe deeper I find there is more planning and thinking about the future than some of these people recognize as future thinking. Yes, they have long term care insurance. Yes, they have signed a “Do Not Resuscitate order. No! They don’t want to go to a nursing home. No, they don’t want their lives to end in an emergency room. Yes, they’re seeing to the education of their grand or great grandchildren. And, “We’ve booked a trip to India for next year. Making plans for a cruise after that.”

So age is not a factor in thinking about or planning for the future. If a person reaches a point where mental of physical problems take away the ability to take actions related to the future, then future thinking becomes limited. But that also seems to indicate the end of personal independence. Maybe that is the real key to personal futures.

In any case, when I speak to groups of older people, I’ll continue to encourage them to keep planning at least ten years ahead in their lives. With young people, I’ll encourage them to start thinking ten years ahead.

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