If you have fallen recently into the long, airless embrace of a modern customer service encounter, spending hours on the phone cycling through a series of automated questions and reaching occasionally a human operator, you may have had the thought -- does customer service really exist anymore?
Of course, there are customer service lines. There are people answering the phones.
But are the operators actually capable of applying any discretion, compassion, or compromise?
The answer in most cases is no. Your contemporary customer service operator is given a headset and a flow chart. The role of the call centre worker is to rephrase the inquiry of the customer and railroad them into a categorical question on the flow chart. Like water trickling down a granite ledge into the mouth of a disappearing sinkhole, the customer flows through the branch lines of predetermined options. All routes lead to corporately convenient outcomes, and the customers’ inquiry disappears into the dark.
As more and more previously normal companies adopt the business practices of No Frills service providers, the practice of providing a fake service line – one where the outcomes are always the same and the solutions are read from a branch diagram – are becoming the norm.
What you are dealing with on most customer service lines is actually a form of dramatised Narrow Artificial Intelligence. A person is reading back to you a series of pre-programmed responses, only for the purpose of paying homage to a now defunct business practice – providing a human voice capable of offering genuine comfort and care.
The last time I called customer service – for a Jetstar flight – an automated answering service led me through a number of questions before letting me speak to an operator. The operator read from a flow chart and might as well have been a continuation of the automated answering service. When my complaint strayed off the flow chart, the operator finally admitted that he was in a division called ‘Customer Care’.
A separate division called ‘Customer Service’ is the only section of the business in which human discretion can be applied, where operators can deviate from the script.
Jetstar’s Customer Service division has no phone number. They can be contacted through an email request form with a 15-day call back limit.
Jetstar effectively has no customer service number.
It's important though to recognise what this illusion of service is and where it's generated from. Huge viral videos like 'United Breaks Guitars' have in recent years bemoaned the lack of staff standards on troubled businesses like airlines.
But the automated-workflow-as-faked-human-interaction is something completely different. It’s the soft introduction of a robot mediated world. When you’re at your local supermarket at the automatic checkout and an assistant comes to help you use the machine you’re not being served, you’re being taught how to interact with a robot.
When a ‘customer care’ employee walks you through a flow chart with no positive outcomes you’re not being served, you’re being introduced to a future where you as a customer are interrogated by narrow AI rather than helped by a human.
You are being taught to live with, and accept, a robot mediated service culture where you are never permitted to speak to a human.
While bots deliver increased efficiency they will also never bend to your will because the weather is nice or because they recognise a client in genuine distress (although it was recently revealed that Apple's automated customer service forwards you to a human operator if you swear a number of times). They won’t soften to aid the hapless or helpless. You don’t need to read Philip K. Dick to understand that robots are the anthropomorphic extension of corporate strategy – a talking, smiling, dancing, hand shaking, polite algorithm programmed to deliver a profit from any and every interaction.
One of the biggest sci-fi viral books of a few years previous – Daemon by David Suarez – explored this future, looking specifically at the role of automated programs or ‘bots’. As the Stanford Associate Professor and corporate forecaster Paul Saffo wrote on the Long Now Foundation’s website:
‘Forget about HAL-like robots enslaving humankind a few decades from now, the takeover is already underway.’
‘The agents of this unwelcome revolution aren’t strong AIs, but “bots”– autonomous programs that have insinuated themselves into the Internet and thus into every corner of our lives. Apply for a mortgage lately? A bot determined your FICA score and thus whether you got the loan. Call 411? A bot gave you the number and connected the call.’
‘Bots are proliferating because they are so very useful. Businesses rely on them to automate essential processes, and of course bots running on zombie computers are responsible for the tsunami of spam and malware plaguing Internet users worldwide.’
‘Left unchecked, bots will trap the human race because the automation they enable will make it possible for a few people to run humanity while the rest of us are unable to make decisions of any consequence.’
‘Bots are thus vectors for despotism, with the potential to create a world where only a small group of people understand how society works.’
Bad customer service isn’t about the decline of standards amongst service workers, it’s about us sleep walking into a culture where much of what seems human is fake, where our previous capacity for joy has been replaced by a barren emotional calculus. Driving this trend are monomaniacal companies and their monomaniacal executives, who, like sex crazed Bowerbirds in October, understand little more than the ritual collection of trivial status baubles.