Help! I’m Through to Automated Help.

When I was last in England, I was checking train times via the old-fashioned landline telephone (or ‘phone’ as Wikipedia helpfully indicates it is colloquially called), when I accidentally went through to an automated service. I’m sorry to say, it incited me to inexplicable impatience, downright disbelief and an overwhelming desire to chuck the ‘phone’ at my own head.

The principal problems I have with these services are:

  • They are not designed to work with humans (this is counter-effective since humans, as far as I know, are the only ones to use them).
  • They insult the intelligence of those with even the teeniest amount.

But before I continue, let me share with you the ‘conversation’ I had with ‘someone’ at National Rail in the UK:

Automated Helpline: Hello! And welcome to National Rail Enquiries. I can give you all the information you need in the most convoluted way possible. This service responds to your voice, so just say what you want, when you know. Are you ready to begin? Say yes, or no.

Me: Yes.

AH: I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. Did you say Tuesday?

Me: No.

AH: Good. What station are you travelling from?

Me: Clapham Junction.

AH: I’m sorry, I missed that, please just say something that might be a word.

Me: Can I speak to a real person, please?

AH: No. What time would you like to travel? Please say ‘Today’.

Me: Er, today.

AH: Did you say today?

Me: Yes

AH: Really? I got that one right? F*** me, I am a genius!!! High Five! Now, please give me the time you would like to travel. For example, say, ‘next service’, or ‘four pm’ or ‘sixteen, nineteen’ or ‘after X-Factor’, or ‘before I stop breathing and disintegrate into the earth’. Please say if you want to ‘depart at’ or ‘arrive by’ this time. To complete this stage, please tell me where your grandmother was born and what age you stopped wearing nappies.

Video Interlude

"Sorry, your fingers are too fat to use this phone. Please hang up and try again."

The fact is, humans are not good at talking to people that aren’t real people. Experience teaches us that speaking to non-humans generally doesn’t lead to engaging or informative exchanges. If you have ever tried to speak to a cat or a computer, you will understand. So when required to verbally engage with an inanimate machine person, the following series of events occurs (for me, at least):

  • Immediate defensiveness.
  • Radical impatience.
  • I adopt a voice which I have never before heard myself use.
  • I speak too soon, or pause too long (out of sheer and futile bloody-mindedness), which inevitably entails an unnaturally natural, “Sorry, I’m not sure I got that. Just act normal”.

Which leads me on to the thing I find most infuriating about this particular kind of service: it refers to itself in the first person! “Sorry, I didn’t catch that”, “OK, I’ll check”. By simply changing the “I” to a “we”, I feel the rudeness would be removed. But instead it attempts to trick us into thinking there is somebody there. What an outright offense to my ordinary brain! I don’t claim to be cleverer than your average Joe, but a genuine person I know this is not. A recorded voice does not warrant the use of the first person singular subject pronoun! And if the system insists on keeping it real with “I”, then why does it tell you at every stage how to respond? This is not realistic. When was the last time you spoke to someone, giving multiple choices for their response? “Hi, how are you? Say fine thanks or very well.” “What time is it? Say what time it is, or I don’t know.” “What are you doing this weekend? Include merry activities that you will invite me to, otherwise say not much and move away from the area.”

And apart from this kind of useless interaction, other automated ‘help’lines offer all the possible information you could never want, in a list that takes several days to listen to, and occasionally finishes with something of vague importance such as the option to speak to a real human being or a different telephone number to call between the hours of three pm and twelve minutes past.

Brad Pitt: Not a fan of National Rail Enquiries either.

Now, given that an automated helpline offers an addition to (or in some unfortunate cases, a replacement of) a real person in a customer service role, I am assuming that it is often those who work in customer service who contribute to content. Given also that this is an automated service, I would assume that some form of technical ability, perhaps the I.T. team, would have a hand in design and implementation. (Apart from this, I assume (perhaps I should stop assuming) that these services then need the green light from managers and directors galore.)

So if your job is to improve customer satisfaction, why do you create a service that diminishes it? And how do these procedures get the OK from the top? “Ah yes, this ensures our customers hate us and break telephones. Great work. Keep it up.”

And I.T.! Come on I.T.! I thought techies were the new trendy. I thought you were the kings of cutting-edge correspondence. Back up your geek-chic tee-shirts with something that works. When I say “twenty past five”, of course I don’t mean “semi poo jive”. This is not good I.T. work, people!
(Disclaimer: I apologise to any properly skilled I.T. lovelies out there, of whom I’m sure there are many, please do not shut down the internetormakeuswriteactuallettersIcan’trememberhowloveyouforeverthanksbye.)

I understand there are cost issues with employing real people to do jobs and it’s true that there’s an insufferable number of incompetents out there in terribly important positions, but even when the day arrives that automated helplines work, we will still be deprived of an actual human exchange.

This is how customer support should make you feel!

(It’s true that once I spoke to a real person in customer support that was like talking to a machine (“Is there anything else I can help you with today?” he offered (after 15 minutes of not having been able to help me with anything whatsoever), to which I replied, “No, unless you can help me with that thing I called for?”, to which he replied, “Unfortunately I can’t. Is there anything else I can help you with today?” and he continued until I showed some compassion with the “No” he so desperately wanted.)) Call me old-fashioned but I’m all for actual human contact – even when it’s ridiculous; at least you get a laugh.

My ‘conversation’ with National Rail ended when I had developed a rather distressing breathing pattern and a disconcerting twitch in my left eye. I had managed to book myself on a train to Lower Dicker from Glasgow Central which left six minutes beforehand, when the final announcement came: “Thank you for calling National Rail Enquiries. If you would like to make any changes to your journey, please press zero to speak to one of my colleagues here in India, I mean Berkshire. Goodbye.”

Automated Helplines: j'aime pas


One response to “Help! I’m Through to Automated Help.

  • Patsy

    I can totally identify with ALL your comments . . . but you made me laugh so much that I was crying and couldn’t continue reading for some time. My suggestion to the ‘Men at the Top’ would be to hang the expense and pay people who are trained and qualified to speak to the public in general and save the public in general from totally losing their marbles . . . have you noticed how many people are out there with a glassy expression on their faces wandering about like zombies? They are the poor souls who have regularly conversed with ‘un-people’ on the telephone and their brains are now addled and look something like pepperonata!

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