Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Press Seven If You’re About To Seriously Lose Your Shit

A few days ago, in the middle of the workday, I thought my next door officemate was being beaten and tortured. I heard him saying, then yelling, No! NOOOOOO! I jumped up and was about to run to his rescue when I figured out what was happening. He was now screaming EXXISSTINNNG ACCCOUNNNNT! CUSSSTOMERRR SEERRRRRVICE REPRESSENTATIVVVVE! Aha. Trapped in automated telephonic customer service hell. Been there. Oh yes.

Like any technology, automated phone systems are continually evolving beasts. These systems have, depending on which end of the phone line you're on, either revolutionized the efficiencies of client solution delivery or been one more straw on the camel's back of the downfall of civilized society. Back in the prehistoric days of customer service, circa, let's say, 1975, one of the pre-recorded options was, if you had a rotary phone (remember those, from back when the term "dial" a number was not a misnomer?) and could not make a selection, to stay on the line and a customer service rep would be right with you. What an innocent time that was. Of course, abuse of this system by touch-tone telephone-owning scofflaws became rampant. Everyone waited for a customer service representative.

During telephonic customer service phase 2.0, you could almost always "press zero at any time to speak with a customer service representative." This, of course, didn't last long. However stupid the average consumer may be, people figured out pretty quickly how easy it was to bypass the whole automated system. During the next phase, if you chose a number that wasn't an option, like by just hitting zero fifty times right at the beginning of the recording, you were punished by being transferred back to the original menu or, on especially draconian networks, hung up on. This was a sort of passive aggressive way for a company to say "yeah, you wish asshole; try again." Next, consumers came to understand that they would have to just listen to all the choices and choose the one that sounded least irrelevant or, in trying to emerge victorious in this game theory warfare scenario, the one that sounded most likely to require intervention by an actual person. Websites started to sprout up (check out: www.gethuman.com) that would give callers the secret roadmap to a customer service rep. Just call the toll free number, then hit 3-3-5-2-7-0-0-0-0-1-1-6-4-7-7-7-8-2-2-2-2-2-2 and 6 and voila! You'll be in the queue for the next rep. About ten years ago, one of the options on National Discount Brokers' phone network was to "press four to hear a duck quack." If you pressed four, sure enough, there it was. Quack. That was awesome. One of the high points in the history of automated telephone systems. (Sadly, this seems to have been discontinued; the number with the duck option now takes to you a TD Bank directory).

And then finally came the current incarnation - voice recognition. Initially, you had to just speak the numbers you otherwise would type – “THREE… THREE… FIVE… TWO...” That didn't feel like a major breakthrough. Now you can say what you want - "customer service," "new account," "check my balance" – and, in theory at least, get some relevant, useful information. The voices that guide you through the process have become steadily more friendly-sounding and contemplative. A long way from the scary, tinny computerized War Games voices from years past ("wooulld you liiike to playy a gaaame?"). The pre-programmed voices now say things like "Hmmm" and "OK, I think I understand your question" like you're getting some truly individualized personal validation and support. We're probably not far off from "wow, that is really a terrific question; let me just meditate on that for a bit; any chance you're free for a drink later tonight, or you maybe wanna swing by my place..." My pharmacy recently started transmitting a strangely satisfying bubble-wrap-popping sound while the disembodied voice contemplated which particular rep might best be able to address my needs. It's maybe supposed to be an aural depiction of what it sounds like when a computer really racks its brain.

Of course, replacing typed numbers with screamed commands doesn't mean there are actually any more helpful options at the end of the customer service matrix. One time in twenty, a person's question can legitimately be answered by an automated response. The rest of the time coworkers around the world have to suffer through hearing their office mates broadcast the minutiae of their lives through the halls. "Hepatitis C… SEEEE… HEEPPATITIS SEEEEEE…" "Speak with Doctor… Yes… Discharge… No... Festering… FESTTTERRRING AND OOZY DISCHARRRRGE..." "Erection... ERECTION... No... Yes... YES... More than four hours... MOOORRE THAN FOURRRR HOURRRSS…"

The larger question is whether any of the this evolving technology has actually made life any more efficient. My sense is that it's a wash. For completely routine transactions where you really don't need to talk to a person, you probably do save a few minutes every time you use an automated system. But then, when you have an issue that is one tiny molecule shy of entirely standard, you give back all of those accrued efficiencies. I promise not to tell you the painfully long story of why I have bought my cable modem three times over and yet am still renting it from Comcast. It all relates to the fact that I just cannot stand the idea of trying to explain on the phone what happened. "Press seven if you moved, took a cable modem with you that you thought was yours but actually was not, paid to buy it, had a delivery guy check the box saying that he had given you a new modem when he actually didn't and now are being billed to rent the modem you've already bought multiple times" is not an option. And, as much as companies have tried to suck every cell of humanity out of their call center employees, they're still human beings in the end and don't generally react well when you say something like "look, I am one hundred percent positive that you are not going to understand the problem I'm having so can we just skip the part where I even try to explain it to you and you just transfer me to your supervisor?"

Is it better to have lots of small daily efficiencies but then have to take three days off of work to deal with changing your cell phone calling plan or to have a steady stream of inefficiencies spread out over a longer period of time? There's definitely something to be said for the latter. You don't hear about people going off the deep end after having to hold for an extra 30 seconds for an operator. On the other hand - and I'm not saying I'm going to do this, just that I understand the mindset - I can see how someone who has just spent all afternoon screaming at a computer-generated voice "I HAVE ALLREADDY BOUGHT MY CAAABBBLE MODEMM THREEEEE TIIIIIIMMMES!!!!!" might run out the door with an automatic weapon and spray a stream of bullets into a crowd of schoolchildren.

Maybe it would be better, societally, for consumers to be subject to continuous, low levels of mild inconvenience and frustration than concentrated, extreme levels. Maybe we should all call our senators to express our concern over this issue. Of course, maybe even senators have telephone routing systems. I hope they're able to process the request, "I AM CONCERRNNNED THAT AUTOMMMATTED PHOONE SYSTEMMS ARE GOOINGG TO MAKE ME LOOOSEE MY SHIIIIIIITTTT."


Unknown said...

hilarious and very timely. i spent 45 mins yesterday (at work) on hold waiting to speak to a customer service representative. at the 30th minute i was praying that i wouldn't be interrupted by some work related emergency that would force me to have to call back again- extremely painful.

Patricia Harrison said...

Sooo true! I laughed at your first paragraph - that's so funny to hear someone wrestling with a voice recognition system. The one that makes my blood pressure climb is Delta Airlines' automated flight information system. A few years ago I discovered that there was a tic that made it unable to recognize Charlotte, NC, or maybe it was just the way I was saying it. This was critical because Graham used this airport a lot and I had to drive 1.5 hours to pick him up. So our conversations would go like this:

DELTA: At what city is the flight arriving?
ME: Charlotte.
DELTA: You said Dallas, is that right?
ME: No. Charlotte.
DELTA: You said Chicago. Is that right?
DELTA: You said Atlanta. Is that right?
DELTA: You said Houston. Is that right?

At which point I would have to beat my head against the wall several times, then give up and check online.

This was compounded by the fact that by the time they actually posted the flight info, I would have had to have left the house 10 minutes earlier to meet the flight on time.

I can feel my blood pressure rising just thinking about this. I think I need a drink...

Anonymous said...

Terrific piece. Maybe for your next one you can discuss the challenges of encountering an English speaking person from very far away whose English you cannot understand and who cannot understand your English..

Ralph in Ithaca