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.

Author: Peter Horst

Marketing has never had a greater impact on the business, and at the same time it’s never been more complex and challenging. The CMO Viewwill dive into the wide-ranging issues faced by CMOs as they navigate digital transformation, connected consumers, disruptive competitors and the need to justify their marketing investment.

Peter Horst is a Fortune 500 CMO and innovation leader who has spent three decades driving growth across diverse industries, ranging from consumer packaged goods to telecom, cybersecurity to financial services.  His experience includes leadership roles at Hershey, where he was most recently CMO, Capital One, TD Ameritrade, and General Mills. Peter has been part of creating and building some of the world’s most iconic brands through breakthrough innovation and award-wining marketing campaigns.  Awards and recognition include Cannes Lion, CMO Club Marketing Innovator Award, being named a Forbes Top 50 Most Influential Global CMO, and #22 of the top 500 global CMOs by Execrank.  Peter now speaks, writes and consults on marketing, innovation and leadership, and is a frequent contributor to CMO.com and other publications. Follow Peter at @peterhorst.

6 thoughts on “What the DMV Taught Me About Brand Trust in the Age of Algorithms”

  1. Hi Peter, I love the guidelines you set out and have shared your suffering. I regret the lazy trend towards using analytics to optimize situations rather than reinvent them. Optimization is easy, but often yields to experiences you just outlined. Rethinking the experience with data at it’s center is much harder as it requires empathy, analytical thinking and guts to blow up the way things are done today. That is the real promise, but few seem to deliver it well.

  2. If there were an alternative to dealing with the DMV for your license, registration, etc., I’m sure that their system would be much more responsive to your needs. Hence the problem with a single-payer health care system. Imagine, that in addition to dealing with the government for your drivers license, you had to go through the identical process in order to manage your health care. Competition is always good for the consumer.

  3. You had me at D. Love your sense of humor. You speak for all of us. I believe the core word here is EMPATHY. When we enter into an establishment any establishment we are there to be served not to serve. Otherwise,we would be on the other side of the fence and D would be called right away not because we are made to feel disturbed, difficult or get back to the end of the line disgusting, but because we are Delicious. Not running away at peak times 11-3pm. You are right, she did not have to let you in on that dining insight ( TMI )… I would have found the nearest coffee shop or bar and tracked them down! Let;s just move the DMV to a happy hour near by. Having said that, I cannot imagine the load they have to take on everyday. You and I are only one person. Can you imagine? We get to walk out and go about our day, like dropping off your grandchildren-feeling the ease of watching tv in silence again. They are in it all day. So? Maybe what works for them may not look like it is working for you on the outside, but if we were standing in their shoes, what is working for them is helping them to work for us. (if)They could just throw in a few hugs, we would then get it 😉

  4. At an even more basic level why is the process like that in the first place. I was bemused by the whole thing when I first moved to the US. Where I came from there is no such thing as a DMV – it’s all online.

  5. I can easily relate and empathize with your story. Vehicle registration is the bane of those who own vehicles. The worst experience. And I would say that this is typical of a government operation. And there’s a reason government operations operate so badly. The employees have no incentive to make your experience pleasant because there is no penalty or reward for doing badly or doing well. And the employees know they need not react to the real world since there is no personal feeling of satisfaction at a job well done or a customer well served. At the DMV among other government facilities, one is not interacting with a organization that cares a whit about customer satisfaction. We can only imagine the wonders that await us with such as a single payer healthcare system.

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