I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Masters

September 21, 2012

I used to work in customer service, so I understand that customer service isn’t a job that requires a lot of skills, and the skills it does require-being articulate, polite, able to read from a script, and knowing when to hand off a question to somebody who knows more like the glorified receptionist customer service people usually are-aren’t that hard to find. It’s why I’m occasionally pleasantly surprised when I have to call a customer service department and speak to someone who’s got all those skills and seems to really want to help me. Of course I’m more often unpleasantly unsurprised by customer service departments where the head of hiring decided all they needed was a bunch of warm bodies and has hired a group of eight year olds who don’t know which end of the phone is the one you speak into, and who all had their lower jaws eaten off by the same wolves who raised them. But no matter how much companies want to cut costs by cutting what they see as unnecessary expenditures-pensions, employee health plans, safety shields that might have prevented the fifth employee this week from falling into the meat grinder-I don’t think they’ll ever be able to completely eliminate customer service. And they’ll never be able to automate it either, although it has been tried.

Recently I dealt with automated customer service. I got a notice that a series of handbooks the library I work at subscribes to will no longer be published in print. Since this was secondhand information I needed to call the publisher to confirm it. Since I didn’t have their number handy I went to the publisher’s website. Let me explain that, whenever possible, I prefer to call customer service departments rather than emailing them. I do this for three reasons. The first is I like to get a problem off my desk as soon as possible, and if I send an email it’s going to go down a black hole and I’ll have to send two or three more emails over the course of two or three days before I get an answer. The second is that I want companies to feel the money they spend supporting their customer service departments is justified. If no one’s calling then customer service people are sitting around doing nothing. When I worked in customer service we weren’t allowed to read or carry on non-work related conversations during calls, which is how I learned to relate a bout of athlete’s foot to the trucking industry, but that’s another story. When people aren’t doing anything that looks to the corporate bigwigs like waste, and I’d hate to contribute to a bunch of customer service people being laid off, at least the ones who weren’t raised by wolves, since the ones who were can always find work in the circus or trucking industry.

And finally the worst customer service experience of my life was because of email. I won’t name the company, but it was a company that makes personal computers that’s known for its innovations, its charismatic former chairman who passed away recently, and its devoted fanbase. And their logo is a fruit. That should be obscure enough to protect all innocent parties. I emailed this company about a problem I was having with one of their programs. I got an answer back from someone named Roger who said he’d be happy to help me if I could describe the problem in more detail. I replied. Then I got an answer from someone named George who said he’d be happy to help me if I could describe the problem in more detail. I replied that Roger was already helping me. Then I got a message from Roger saying that he couldn’t help me if I didn’t respond to his email. I responded to Roger telling him I’d already responded, and forwarded my correspondence with George. Then I got a reply from someone named Phil, which included my reply to George, saying he’d be happy to help me if I could describe the problem in more detail. When I got a reply from someone named Mike that included my correspondence with Roger and George asking me to describe the problem in more detail, and messages from Roger, George, and Phil telling me they considered the matter closed since I never responded to them I gave up. And that’s why, even though it may be a 20th century way of dealing with things, I use the phone. Anyway, I went to this publisher’s website looking for a phone number, but they didn’t have one listed. Instead they had a "live customer service chat" link. So I clicked that, got a message that a representative would be with me shortly, and then got this:

Agent: Hi. I’m Kevin. What can I help you with today?
Me: Hi. Is it correct that your handbooks will no longer be published in print?
[Kevin is typing.]
Agent: We publish the handbooks. They’re our premier publication, full of useful information that every company should have.
Me: Are they going to be published in an online format?
[Kevin is typing.]
Agent: I can assist you with that.
Me: Will they be available to libraries?
[Kevin is typing]
Agent: Our handbooks are a virtual library of information that every company should have.

At this point I was pretty sure I was dealing with what computer people call a "chatterbot", a program that looks for key words and provides pre-scripted responses. If you owned a computer in the 1980s you probably played with a chatterbot at some point, so you know if you typed in something like "Your mother rides a vacuum cleaner" it would reply "Tell me more about your mother", since, for some reason, all chatterbots are written by Freudian computer programmers. I had a feeling "Kevin" was going to be about as useful, so I decided to throw a curve ball.

Me: Is it available via IP authentication or is access strictly limited by username and password?
[Kevin is typing]
Agent: These are excellent questions. For further assistance with your concerns dial 1-800…
[Kevin is typing]
Agent: Is there anything else I can help you with today?

I told a friend of mine about this, and he said, "It could have been worse. The response to your last question could have been, ‘Dave, I don’t think you should do that.’" And that would have been terrifying, but what really happened was almost as scary. Since I now had the publisher’s number I called it, and the person who answered said, "Hi, this is Kevin. How can I help you?" And in the background I could hear howling.

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