Technology Vs The Human Touch #edcmooc

This article was originally posted by me on 12 Aug 2012 on my personal blog from a customer service perspective – a representation of how technology is reducing the human interaction in business transactions. I am sharing it here once again as it is still relevant from the perspective of being human.

I received a rather funny forwarded email from a friend of mine a few days ago, which prompted me to write this post. Whether the story given in the mail is true or not, it certainly is thought provoking.

Here is how the story goes…

86-year Old Lady’s Letter to Bank

 Shown below is an actual letter that was sent to a bank by an 86 year old woman. The bank manager thought it amusing enough to have it published in the New York Times.

Dear Sir,

I am writing to thank you for bouncing my check with which I endeavored to pay my plumber last month. By my calculations, three nanoseconds must have elapsed between his presenting the check and the arrival in my account of the funds needed to honor it.

I refer, of course, to the automatic monthly deposit of my entire pension, an arrangement which, I admit, has been in place for only eight years.

You are to be commended for seizing that brief window of opportunity, and also for debiting my account $30 by way of penalty for the inconvenience caused to your bank.

My thankfulness springs from the manner in which this incident has caused me to rethink my errant financial ways. I noticed that whereas I personally answer your telephone calls and letters, — when I try to contact you, I am confronted by the impersonal, over charging, prerecorded, faceless entity which your bank has become.

From now on, I, like you, choose only to deal with a flesh-and-blood person.

My mortgage and loan re payments will therefore and hereafter no longer be automatic, but will arrive at your bank, by check, addressed personally and confidentially to an employee at your bank whom you must nominate.

Be aware that it is an OFFENSE under the Postal Act for any other person to open such an envelope.

Please find attached an Application Contact which I require your chosen employee to complete.

I am sorry it runs to eight pages, but in order that I know as much about him or her as your bank knows about me, there is no alternative. Please note that all copies of his or her medical history must be counter signed by a Notary  Public, and the mandatory details of his/her financial situation (income, debts, assets and liabilities) must be accompanied by documented proof.

In due course, at MY convenience, I will issue your employee with a PIN number which he/she must quote in dealings with me.

I regret that it cannot be shorter than 28 digits but, again, I have modeled it on the number of button presses required of me to access my account balance on your phone bank service.

As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Let me level the playing field even further. When you call me, press buttons as follows:


#1. To make an appointment to see me.

#2. To query a missing payment.

#3. To transfer the call to my living room in case I am there.

#4 To transfer the call to my bedroom in case I am sleeping

#5. To transfer the call to my toilet in case I am attending to nature.

#6. To transfer the call to my mobile phone if I am not at home

#7. To leave a message on my computer, a password to access my computer is required. Password will be communicated to you at a later date to that Authorized Contact mentioned earlier.

#8. To return to the main menu and to listen to options 1 through 7.

#9. To make a general complaint or inquiry. The contact will then be put on hold, pending the attention of my automated answering service.

#10. This is a second reminder to press* for English.

While this may, on occasion, involve a lengthy wait, uplifting music will play for the duration of the call.

Regrettably, but again following your example, I must also levy an establishment fee to cover the setting up of this new arrangement.

May I wish you a happy, if ever so slightly less prosperous New Year?

Your Humble Client

And remember: Don’t make old People mad. We don’t like being old in the first place, so it doesn’t take much to piss us off.

I can certainly empathize with the old lady, because personally, I feel that it is most important to retain the human touch in order to retain customers. Whilst technology and automation essentially help to reduce service time and enable companies to handle a large volume of customers in a relatively shorter time, and may also eliminate or reduce manpower needed to handle customers, they also make service a very mechanical and impersonal process, which is not necessarily a good thing if one is seeking to build customer loyalty. Obviously, the use of technology helps to reduce costs by eliminating what many consider to be surplus manpower, and to some degree, increase efficiency in handling a large number of callers. But this increased volume-efficiency comes at a cost – a dissatisfied or frustrated customer.

Frustrated CallerOne technology which I personally have learnt to despise over the years is the Interactive Voice Response System, or IVRS as it is more popularly known. If you look up the term on Wikipedia, this is what it tells you about the IVRS –

Interactive voice response (IVR) is a technology that allows a computer to interact with humans through the use of voice and DTMF tones input via keypad.

In telecommunications, IVR allows customers to interact with a company’s host system via a telephone keypad or by speech recognition, after which they can service their own inquiries by following the IVR dialogue. IVR systems can respond with pre-recorded or dynamically generated audio to further direct users on how to proceed. IVR applications can be used to control almost any function where the interface can be broken down into a series of simple interactions. IVR systems deployed in the network are sized to handle large call volumes.

IVR technology is also being introduced into automobile systems for hands-free operation. Current deployment in automobiles revolves around satellite navigation, audio and mobile phone systems.

It’s common in industries that have recently entered the telecommunications industry to refer to an automated attendant as an IVR. The terms, however, are distinct and mean different things to traditional telecommunications professionals, whereas emerging telephony and VoIP professionals often use the term IVR as a catch-all to signify any kind of telephony menu, even a basic automated attendant. The term voice response unit (VRU) is sometimes used as well.

What Wikipedia does not tell us is that it is this very technology which at times serves to alienate customers. Just to cite an example, I would like to ask the reader to recall the time when they called up their cellphone service provider to sort out an issue or a problem. When you get through, you are greeted by a cold impersonal voice which asks you to first select your language and then runs you through a menu to choose from, depending on your requirements, and the LAST option that you get is to speak to a customer service representative. In some cases, the prerecorded menu may suffice, and the caller may happily be able to get the issue sorted out, and that would be the end of the call. However, the IVRS works on a sort of one-size-fits-all formula, which does not apply to all callers. There are many who would genuinely need to speak to a human being in order to resolve their problem. What about such callers ? How satisfied would they be talking to a robotic voice ?

AND, to make matters worse, these days most telecom operators would want to charge you for calling them, so while you hold and listen to the prerecorded messages, your meter is ticking away, adding to their revenues – you are being charged to have your problem resolved. Finally, as and when you do get to choose the option to speak to a human being, you are told that you are in the queue and that your call is important to the company, so please hold and wait for the rep to be free. And periodically the robot will tell you that your call is important, so please do stay on the line. Of course the call is important to them, especially when it is on hold, because after all, the caller is being charged for the holding time as well ! This is, of course, true if you are calling a telecom company. If you are calling any other company, you are still paying for the duration of the call. At the same time, there are companies which offer a toll-free number to call, so they are picking up the tab for the call, but in terms of level of satisfaction, the end result is still the same, because even in case of toll-free numbers, the human option is the last one.

While implementing any technology based customer service solution, one basic fact must be borne in mind, which is that people prefer to do business with people. They don’t like to do business with machines, unless the transaction is of the kind where the human touch is not necessary, for example, the ATM machine. That makes sense, because it adds to the convenience of the customer, and is genuinely a technology where the human touch is not necessary. Same would apply to several other such applications where the customer would not mind at all when he transacts business with the help of technology. The use of should be done judiciously, and not just for the sake of introducing technology. Some companies,unfortunately, implement technology just because everyone else is doing so, without properly evaluating whether it would serve their purpose or not.

It is important to remember here that each interaction with a customer is a moment of truth. If the interaction is a good one, it creates a moment of joy for the customer. If the interaction is without incident, and the customer has nothing to be delighted about, but at the same time, nothing to be dissatisfied either, the customer is, at best, satisfied. The third possible outcome of the interaction is the moment of misery – an angry or dissatisfied customer. And always bear in mind that a  satisfied customer may not necessarily convert into a loyal customer. Machines rarely create loyal customers. Human interaction creates them. Technology should be used only to the extent where it suffices to serve the customer needs. Anything beyond that would have far from desirable results.