Technology that's Virgin on the ridiculous

Technology's supposed to make our lives easier - but it doesn't always work out like that. Ask Virgin.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Virgin Trains has found itself in hot water after its latest CRM exercise back-fired spectacularly. It was trying to invite a small and select group of customers to a luxury golf day at The Grove Golf Resort Hotel in Hertfordshire, but due to some kind of technical glitch ended up emailing most of its database instead. It was then forced to send out another email to tens of thousands of happy handicappers telling them that the whole thing had been an embarrassing cock-up – which doesn’t sound like the best way to get into their good books…

Still, it wasn’t all bad news for the disappointed punters. Virgin’s apologetic second email said: ‘We realise that we might have got you all excited about the prospect of a day at The Grove, and would like to offer you the chance to win one of three places at this event.’ So instead of a cast-iron invite, customers were fobbed off with a one-in-several-thousand chance lucky dip. A massive consolation, we’re sure…

It just goes to show that although technology has revolutionised marketing, by allowing companies to target specific groups of customers easily and cheaply with carefully selected messages, it brings its own dangers - notably that it also makes it much easier to make glaring errors like this.

The other problem with technology, of course, is the sheer amount of information that it allows these companies to collect about us – and their staff, as it turns out. It’s emerged that some of the big retailers are joining forces to launch the National Staff Dismissal Register, an online database of all employees that have been sacked for dodgy dealings. The industry is positioning it as a way to cut down on the £400m it loses every year through staff fraud, but not surprisingly the civil liberties lobby is up in arms. The Register will apparently be able to hold someone’s details for five years even if their ex-employer had insufficient evidence to prosecute them – which means that during this period it will be nigh-on impossible for them to get a job.

While we sympathise with employers wanting to protect themselves from nefarious employees, it does seem a bit dubious that someone can effectively be blacklisted from the retail industry with no opportunity to defend themselves. We also don’t quite understand how it can be legal, given the restrictions of the Data Protection Act. And then there’s the slippery slope argument: it might just record fraud dismissals to begin with, but what about if it gets extended to other reasons for dismissal too? If employers could refuse to hire people with a history of incompetence, some of us would never have got a job...

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