About Excellence, Business, consumer advocacy, customer service, Technology

Play Action Fake: How High Tech Service Drops The Ball

Thanks to my work on the Common Wealth of Kentucky Project, I notice our people connections more than ever. They are rich and rewarding. So when something presents a disconnection, I see that too.

2:45 P.M.: I called Verizon Customer service 800 number.

  1. Changed into workout clothes. (10 min)
  2. Spun a Peloton pop ride with Cody. (30 min)
  3. Stretched. (10 min)
  4. I took the dogs on a walk. (20 min)
  5. Loaded the trash and drove it a mile to the farm dumpster. (20 min)
  6. Fed the dogs. (5 min)
  7. Stretched again. (10 min)
  8. Removed the paint from my toenails. Long overdue. (5 min)
  9. Took a slow shower. (15 min)
  10. Clipped my toenails. (5 min)
  11. Got dressed. (5 min)
  12. Opened a beer, poured it in a glass, sat down, started the computer. (5 min)
  13. Checked email. (5 min)
  14. Started writing this blog. (5 min)

5:15 P.M: I hung up with Verizon Customer service.

Activities 1-14 happened concurrently with a 2.5 hours-long Verizon customer service call. And like a modern college football game, roughly 6% of the game was play action. The rest of the time, I was on the sidelines, on hold, waiting for the TV timeout to end.

Two option plays with no forward motion—on the first, after thirty minutes of lively music a consumer psychologist vetted as making the wait a little easier, the agent and I lost touch, “somehow disconnected.” So I called back to start over. Twenty minutes of the tinny loop had me on edge. Finally, when the music stopped, I gasped a little, and like a Pavlovian dog playing musical chairs, I plopped down with pricked ears. When the music started back, I took the trash and mentally strategized my next move. Should I say the rep hung up on me and wait for her to search his notes, or just start my request all over again? Which option will move things forward?

I can’t help but wonder what the service reps are doing during the hours we are together on the sidelines; maybe the same as me. I picture the first guy working his nautilus, customer service headset securely in place, hold button close by for between sets. The second lady is shopping online or potting a mum. For most of the call, she had me on mute, said she was with me the whole time. So when the music started back up, a foreboding transition, I rationalized she must be picking her kid up from school. Ever hopeful she would return, I pictured radio waves rolling across America for an entire afternoon while I waited for someone to help me find my order. I even had time to search up articles on Google, “Are electromagnetic waves bad for the environment?”

I hope the service reps were multitasking during the 2.5 hours they spent with me. If they weren’t doing something else, then what took so long? Slow computers? Bad database? Nebulous record keeping? Muted response on the other end? If it is not the people, then it must be the technology.

Why does it seem that the triumphs of technology have made some of our simple tasks take longer? Have we traded our time, connections, and common sense for an illusion of convenience?

I remember my mom pulling into the phone company off 2nd Avenue and parking the car. We swung open the glass door and walked up to a wood veneer counter where mom pulled out her phone bill and check and handed it to a nice lady who smiled at us and gave me a red lollipop. If mom had questions, the lady across the counter oversaw answering them. If she did not have the answer on hand, then she walked to a back office or dialed up someone who knew. The person at the counter was a member of our team. She would be with us and take us all the way up the line until the question was resolved. Meanwhile, I had something sweet and tasty to keep me occupied.

Don’t say I’m old. That part is relative. On the bell curve, I’m decently techy. I buy stuff and pay my bills online. I design websites, build videos and podcasts. I created a shortcut on Garage Band the other day, and I know plenty of gen-Z’s who can’t do that. I am a big fan of technology that helps, entertains, teaches, and connects us.

I do not care for technology that lacks intuition, lessens accountability, builds a wall between the consumer and the product they are paying for and makes older people feel less confident and confused.

Listening to my husband in his southern accent attempt an automated menu makes me want to pull my hair out. Bots have an unconscious bias against southerners. “I’m sorry. I didn’t get that,” she says. “Say Flooring or dial one; Plumbing or dial two; Electrical or dial three.” Dan uses his best midwestern imitation, “CUSTOMER…SERVICE…REPRESENTATIVE”, and the Bot, in her kind and gentle voice, responds, “First, I need to get a little more information, so I can get you to the right place.” Dan: “I have a question about a wobbly refrigerator,” to which she replies, “I’m sorry I didn’t get that. Visit us on the web at www….” I imagine R2 D2 in a ninja pose blocking our way to a post-COVID wizard behind the curtain in his boxer briefs and unbrushed hair. He pulls levers, punches red blinking lights, and repeats, “I will not talk to humans. I will not talk to humans.”

How often does an automated menu fit your needs? If I had a bitcoin for each minute I have “chatted” with a Bot about an issue that doesn’t fit his algorithmic box, I would be rich in bitcoins, and I would buy the Bot and replace him with an actual person who is an Excellence Czar.

I think about the evolution of modern medicine with varietals of specialists and layers of people who help solve our health. The best hospitals or clinics have a system of communication where they become an individual’s healthcare team. In a positive human-oriented environment, you don’t have to explain your problems over and over again. Instead, notes and professionals pass your information up the line and make the experience more fluid and hopefully effective. On the football team, even in those eleven minutes of offensive play in a three-hour game, everyone works together to move the ball forward, in trust, with real people, in real-time.

What if every time I called Verizon, my number hit the same representative’s line? After a couple of calls, I might know her name, where she’s from, and maybe something about her kids. She would know the same about me and remember her steps to help me from the last time. She would say, “Okay, Beth, honey. Now hang in there while I call the supervisor at the distribution center to see if they can track down that order. The last time you called, there was a hold on it, so let me see if that’s changed. If you need to go run the trash, that’ll be fine. I’m not going anywhere.”

I like technology for convenience and transactions. I want people for support and problem-solving. Unfortunately, these days the quest for a human voice feels like a medieval conquest. A phone line on hold or a pulsing curser online feels like a dark hallway with no doors and only one way out; the eery metallic soundtrack bounces off the walls. Meanwhile, walking up to the service counter at Walmart feels like a ray of warm, coastal sunshine. You can’t ignore someone standing right in front of you, and nothing will ever take the place of looking in someone’s eyes while seeing their hands for building the trust that makes it all tick.

After 2.5 hours, the anonymous lady came back to my line and said, “Your order is in our system. Unfortunately, due to COVID, our warehouse is empty. Yours is on backorder, and I don’t know when you will get it.” After exhausting her and her computer’s energy, I bet she called the warehouse and asked someone to look.

I think I am going old-school for the holidays this year. I will drive to a shop, walk in, smile at a few people, maybe do a civilian sell, just for sport, buy thoughtful gifts, keep the receipts, and if they don’t work out, I will happily return them to a beautiful human service attendant.

I wager it would be a tie game if I kept track of my online shopping/returning last year vs. real-time shopping/returning this year. The edge factor: a real-time shopping strategy lessens the likelihood for those play-action fakes that force me off my line and into a technology tailspin. I’m getting dressed to go shopping. Now, where is my list? Ah yes, it is conveniently located on my smart phone. 

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