Please Wait

“You have reached the Department of Blah, Blah, Blah. If you know your party’s extension, you can dial it at any time. Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed. If you wish to complain about the weather, please press 1. If you wish to discuss the time of day, press 2. If your call concerns the day of the week, press 3. If your call concerns the month of the year press 4. If your call concerns the price of tea in China, press 5. If you wish to hear these options again, press 6. For all other calls, please stay on the line until we disconnect you.”

I’m sure this monologue resonates with most of you. We hear something like it at the beginning of every phone call to any major business1 and many minor businesses. It is the standard greeting given us by ubiquitous automated switchboards. Related to the automated switchboards are the recently deployed customer support “virtual agents” (officially known as “interactive voice response” technology, or IVR for short) that you get once you get past the automated switchboard. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but personally, I think these are perhaps the most egregious technological innovations ever perpetrated on the public.

Technology is supposed to improve our lives. It is supposed to increase efficiency, cut costs and benefit everyone. Well, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. And at other times, it benefits some while being a bonafide PIA2 to others. So what about automated switchboards and “virtual agents” ? Let’s look at some of the advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages to business executives

    • Cost savings from elimination of salaries/benefits for switchboard operators and customer support personnel
    • Time savings from reduced employee/manager interactions
    • Time savings from reduced public access to executives (not to mention nuisance factor)

Disadvantages to business executives

    • I can’t think of any3

Advantages to public

    • I can’t think of any

Disadvantages to public

    • Job losses
    • Menus rarely relate to customer needs
    • Time wasted listening to inapplicable menu options
    • Annoyance listening to repeated
      • Messages: “Your call is valuable to us, please wait for the next available agent”
      • Muzak snippets disliked equally by everyone
    • Time wasted attempting to communicate with “virtual agents” that
      • can’t understand your speech
      • can’t understand your questions/issues
      • can’t answer your questions/issues
      • don’t give a damn
    • Time wasted waiting to interact with a human
    • Time wasted finally reaching someone capable of understanding your issue/request
    • 50% probability of actually resolving issue/request without being transferred to someone else
    • Time wasted being transferred from one agent to another
    • Time wasted repeating authenticating information (please wait while I review your account)
    • Time wasted repeating questions/issues
    • 90% probability of failure in resolving your issues, and giving “customer service” a 1 rating in a totally useless survey.4

So, it would seem that IVR and other forms of artificial intelligence (or Ai5) technology applied to customer interactions with business organizations is strictly a win proposition for businesses and a lose proposition for the public. But even worse, what this accomplishes is greater insulation of executive management from any accountability to the public.

There was a time when you could make a phone call and actually speak with a president or vice president of a major corporation. On two occasions, long ago, I was able to do that and effectively change corporate policies to better serve customers and save money for the corporations. That could never happen today with all the electronic barriers in place between executives and the public.

There is another, less obvious but far reaching, concern we should have about the use of these technologies. The insulation of the executive/management class from the general public renders them less accountable to the public. Lacking accountability to the public and lacking government oversight (from deregulation) allows executives to make policies that maximize profits at the expense of jobs, employee wages and benefits, public health and safety, and the environment. Furthermore, with increased profits comes increased income and wealth which further exacerbates the divide between the classes. And finally, with increased wealth comes increased influence in the election of public officials and the enactment of public policies, both of which further erode (what’s left of) our democracy.

Technology, in general, can provide us with extremely powerful tools to benefit all mankind. But in all human history, there has never been an invention intended for the benefit of mankind that hasn’t been used as a weapon of oppression.6

1 Government agencies also use this technology but that’s a topic for another discussion.

2 Pain in the ass.

3 If anyone can think of any disadvantages to corporate executives or of any advantages to the public, please let me know.

4 My most fervent prayer is for God to create a special place in Hell in which deceased Verizon executives are condemned to spend eternity requesting “customer support” from Verizon. (My prayer extends to other corporate executives as well.)

5 Notice the capital A and lower case i signifying that it is highly artificial and not very intelligent.

6 “Yeah, verily, I have passed through the valley of the shadow and there I saw much more to fear than such picayune things as evil.” – Author unknown