What the DMV Taught Me About Brand Trust in the Age of Algorithms

After I shifted my residency from Pennsylvania to Virginia, I put off for way too long the job of going to the DMV to change my driver’s license. When I finally went recently, it was just as awful an experience as I expected. While I did lose years off my life, I also came away with new insights about customer experience and brand trust in the age of the algorithm.

building trustAfter I shifted my residency from Pennsylvania to Virginia, I put off for way too long the job of going to the DMV to change my driver’s license. When I finally went recently, it was just as awful an experience as I expected. While I did lose years off my life, I also came away with new insights about customer experience and brand trust in the age of the algorithm.

Let me set the stage. After explaining my needs (license, registration) to a greeter, I was given a ticket with the the number D72. I then went to sit among 100 or so lost souls watching a ticker go by: A31, T76, F17, H125, B7, A32 C38 … And I watched. And watched. After about an hour it dawned on me that I had not seen one “D” number go by in all that time.

I wandered around seeking an explanation for this strange D-free streak. I saw a poster that said something like, “We have a numbering system that prioritizes the various services with an employee with the right level of experience and training. We find that this is most effective process.”

So in other words, “We have a sort of secret system, and will not really explain it to you, but trust us, it works (for us).”

Rather than provide comfort, this bit of bureaucratic prose only wound me up further: What does my “D” ticket say about me? Where do I stack in the pecking order? What trade-offs are they making that are invisible to me, and that cost me precious time? Should I have gamed the system by doing things one at a time? Can I swipe my neighbor’s faster-moving C ticket? (He’s sleeping on shoulder, so really wouldn’t miss it.)

My conversation with the greeter didn’t help matters. She explained that, yes, D tickets were really slow — harder to deal with. Plus, 11-3 was the lunch hour, and therefore things get really bogged down at that time. I opined that 11-3 was more accurately a lunch four-hours, not a lunch hour, representing nearly half the day. Her silent, reptilian stare chilled my spine and sent me back to my seat.

At four hours and twelve minutes, I gave up and handed the win to the State of Virginia and went home to drink heavily.

This is where the lesson for marketers comes started to dawn on me.

None of us would ever seek to recreate such an experience. But in the age of the algorithm, analytic optimization and the coming era of AI, we run the risk of inadvertently creating similarly mysterious and unsettling experiences — and thereby undermining brand trust.