Press One for Oblivion…Call me crazy but when I make a telephone call I expect to talk to a human on the other end. This is especially true when I have an issue that I’d like to resolve. Unfortunately, as many of you know, the friendly refrain of, “Hello, how may I help you?”, has been replaced by the less enthusiastic, and certainly more foreboding, “Press one for…” Maybe it’s just me, but as soon as I hear the dulcet tones of the an automated attendant asking me to begin my path through a structure with more branches than a Sequoia, I feel all hope of resolving my issue has been lost—and I consider myself a pretty optimistic guy. Unfortunately, it seems like these automated systems are the rule rather than the exception, and I don’t think this bodes well for all of us problem-vexed customers out here.

While I can understand companies using these automated firewalls from an economic perspective, I often wonder what their customers think about this “arms length” approach to customer service. After all, isn’t this kind of like saying, “We appreciate your business, but we sure as heck don’t want to talk to you”. Like most of you, I like being able to be at my desk and purchase everything from socks to a new car from my keyboard, but if I have a problem I prefer just a little bit more of a personal touch. I think this has to do with the fact that a lot of time the problem we are grappling with doesn’t fit neatly into the vendor’s pre-set list of options, or worse, it can’t be described by punching a few numbers into the phone—I’ve yet to run into the automated system that tells me to “Press 2, if you can’t figure out why the green thing will not move from the locked position”.

In an effort to be offer a more user friendly alternative to having to press phone buttons to describe our product or service related calamity, many of these systems now offer a voice recognition option to let us verbally navigate their byzantine structures. This would, of course, be a much more satisfactory option if they were able to actually recognize the command spoken. These interactions invariable start out pleasantly enough, but quickly seem to bring forward the darker sides of nature:

System: “Hello, please say 1 if you would like to proceed”

You: “One”

System: “I thought I heard you say 326, is that correct?”

You: “No. I said one”

System: “I’m sorry I don’t recognize that command. Please say 1 if you’d like to proceed”

You: “One”

System: “I’m sorry I did not understand your response”

You: “For the love of God, one!”

System: “Did you say, 32?”

You: “$%@# You!”

System: “I thought I heard you say one, is that correct?”

 

Perhaps the most devastating aspect of the automated customer service system is that their decisions, even if incorrect, are final. Recently, I was trying to confirm when the cable installation guy was going to coming to my house. After descending about eight layers into the menu—the virtual alternative to spelunking I suppose– I finally reached the prompt to confirm the time and, upon accessing it, was told that the time I had listed was, in fact, the one in the system. The system then asked me if that was correct and I naturally said, “Yes”. At this point I received a response thanking me for cancelling my appointment and asking me if I’d like to schedule a new one.

Since D-Day required less logistical planning than having your cable activated, I immediately redialed and flew through the menu as fast as my fingers could fly. Miraculously, after 30 minutes of effort, I was able to somehow punch in a number sequence that resulted in my reaching a real live human. Suddenly, sunlight broke through the window, I swore I could hear a chorus of angels singing on high, and I’m not afraid to admit it, I wept in happiness. After profusely thanking the disembodied voice on the other end of the line for her pure…humanness, I explained how the system had incorrectly cancelled my appointment and asked if she could, out of sheer human kindness, reset the appointment to my original date. In response to my request, my fellow human, in what I’m sure was the most empathetic voice she could muster, informed me that it was not possible to make any changes once they had been made in the system.

There are many today who are worried that technological solutions are increasingly doing the jobs that humans used to do. I say that day has already arrived, at least in terms of customer service. The famous French existential philosopher, John Paul Satre, once wrote a play that depicted hell as a closed room populated with multiple people. Obviously, if Satre were to write the same play today it would begin with the line, “Press one for…”

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