Saturday, July 13, 2013

Can You Hear Me Now?

Verizon's friendly service staff

When a customer wants service — as in customer service — they would like to speak to a human being who understands their concern and can make sure it’s taken care of or directed to the right person and/or department. The customers of a large telecommunications company may have any number of reasons for wanting service, from questions about products to billing, to troubleshooting equipment, to repair.

But like many other large institutions with many customers, customer service has been outsourced to cut costs. It's expensive to employ knowledgeable and competent people to read or listen to other people with all their quirks and accents. This is why when you call your bank your call is handled by someone called “Steve” in India. Even this is preferable to finding yourself in conversation with a voicebot who requires you to state your case clearly and seeks to assure you it understands by repeating your words back to you. Increasingly, it’s why when you look online to find the number to call for a human being you find instead an automated customer service agent.

Verizon employs (as in uses, not pays), one of these. Anticipating squeamishness about typing questions in a blank type window, Verizon provides an array of computer-generated avatars from the shoulders up who actually blink at you as if they are listening. If you don’t like the first one which pops up you can change it to one you feel more comfortable opening up to. They offer five to cater to every cultural taste by blending a range of non-threatening, quasi-professional features and thus look far more like pixels than people. Their names, too are interestingly generic yet exude a distinctly Anglo-Saxon air: Amy, Jake, Lisa, Alex or Kate.

You’re invited to type in a question. Not a statement; a question.  It’s like playing Jeopardy. “Will the repairman you promised would arrive three days ago actually turn up or what?” is not considered a valid question, mostly because it’s too long, but also because the program cannot interpret anything other than keywords like “Tell me about high speed internet.” It’s also because the program does not recognize frustration or sarcasm, unlike actual human beings.

If your phone line is out of order and you would like it to be fixed (seeing as you’re paying for it and would like to make and receive calls), the avatar will be of no help to you, because let’s face it: they are simply sales reps disguised as customer service agents. In that case, Verizon provides you with a phone number to call. This is useful when your phone is not functioning. You’d think that a telecommunications company would figure that one out. But no.

If you borrow a phone and call this number it’s actually a dead end, much like the customer service avatar. No-one ever picks up. In the meantime, as you wait hopefully, you get the sensation that you are being subtly teased by the ringing phone which clearly does work, unlike your own.

So if you can’t write and you can’t call, how on Earth can you get their attention?

Despite all the avatars in the world, never fall for the illusion that this is a two-way conversation. They may be programmed to blink to suggest they can see you, but they can’t hear a damn thing. 

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