Technology is murdering customer service - legally

Chopping down the phone tree to scrump low-hanging fruit

Er, May Day... is that really you?

Please repeat the question...

I recently tried to use an airline’s support website (after 15 dire minutes on their phone-support line) to find out about a mysterious charge on my credit-card bill, and I was presented with a chat window. Above the window was a photo of a generic, smiling customer-service rep (or more likely a model playing one), and the greeting “Hi, I’m Jane.” I typed in, “There was a charge of $9.29 from you on my credit card. Can you tell me what it was for?”

The answer: “I’m sorry, I can’t understand your question. Can you please rephrase it?” Huh? After trying several variations, with the same result each time, it became apparent that I was talking to an AI machine, and not a very smart one. Eventually “Jane” threw up her virtual hands, apologised, and presented me with a link to click for help, at which point I was thrown into the familiar Answer Tree of Death.

It’s amusing to think that the skills you developed playing Adventure-style games may now give you an edge in getting an answer to questions about your bill, but the novelty wears off pretty quickly. Let’s see, is it “question about bill”? How about “can’t pay you please help”? Or “unknown charge wtf”?

To be fair, there are companies that still treat the traditional customer-support model as something sacred, but as with other “races to the bottom” it’s hard to see how they’ll be able to remain competitive while providing a level of service that costs many times what everyone else is spending. Disturbing as it may be to see something that was once a basic requirement morph into a premium service, paying for access to full-fledged customer service may soon be the only option.

Another one that works reasonably well, at least for widely used products, is company-hosted sites that allow users to post details of their questions for other users (bless them) to answer. In this case, “crowdsourcing” is not much more than a euphemism for “You folks work this out among yourselves, OK?” But considering that the technical knowledge of some of the participants on these sites is starting to rival anything you could hope to get from the companies themselves, the DIY solution may not be all that bad in the end. ®

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