John Humphrys - Customer Service : a self-contradictory notion?

November 21, 2021, 2:43 PM UTC

There was a time when ‘the customer was always right’. It was never true, of course, but it was a fiction that had to be respected because that was in the days when the customer was a real, physical, warm-blooded person standing there in front of another real, physical, warm-blooded person. The shop assistant, the bank clerk, the town hall official, whose job it was to help and to play along with the fiction that the customer may indeed be right. But now, in the digital age, and, even more since Covid sent us all running away from actual, physical contact with each other, that picture of customers and staff as people who actually meet is becoming a quaint anachronism. Now the relationship is more likely to be virtual. It’s as though the human element in one half of the customer-server relationship has simply disappeared and the remaining humans are left ‘talking’ to a computer screen behind which is not another human being but an algorithm. What’s this doing to customer service? What’s it doing to our ability to manage the ordinary day-to-day administration of our lives? And, most important of all, where next are we likely to lose contact with human beings on whose help we have always relied?

Sharing examples of hanging for hours on the end of the phone or of hitting a brick wall when trying to arrange something online has become one of the tortures of contemporary conversation. It’s torture because we’ve all got examples and we all want to tell them because we think our own experience will trump the one we’ve just heard from someone else. And only by telling our story in every excruciating detail can we demonstrate that things can and do only get worse. Example: “And then I was passed to yet another department and had to tell them my date of birth and the first line of my address for the four hundredth time…” So we suffer ourselves and have to relive everyone else’s suffering.

Then, throughout all this trading of woes, we try to keep a smile on our faces because it’s so awful it’s almost funny. Perhaps it’s a British thing about grinning and bearing. But the more we look at it like this, the more it encourages those who are making life difficult for us (usually to save money for themselves) to think they can get away with it. So perhaps we should make more of a fuss. And, even more, perhaps we should perhaps stop grinning and think where all this may be leading.

Just because I’ve said that recounting horror stories about trying to contact bureaucracies is a form of torture it doesn’t follow that I’m going to spare you. On the contrary Take, for example, a recent experience I had trying to get a small refund from a national organisation I’d paid upfront for a service that in the end they couldn’t provide. I was told I was due a ‘partial’ refund. But it wouldn’t be paid automatically and nor could I claim it online: I could do so only by phone. So I rang them up.

Inevitably I first got through to an automated message. This first told me how committed the organisation was to my interests, fulfilling its own goals and, no doubt, to world peace and reconciling differences among nations. Then it told me the call would be recorded for training purposes. I was then warned that there was limited availability for the services it was offering. I was then offered several options, all of which were steering me in the direction of the website even though I’d been told I could get my refund only by staying on the phone. I was then reassured that I would shortly be connected to an operator, but before that I was told that information from the recording of the conversation would be stored in a national database and that if I wanted to access that information there was a website I could consult etc etc. Obviously I needed then to be reassured about how this information would and wouldn’t be used, and so there was yet another website I could access to give me peace of mind. And if I wasn’t satisfied by this I could talk about it to the operator. Then I was transferred to another automated voice message which told me that the number of people trying to get through was so large that they couldn’t take my call and I should ring back later.

So I did and got the same result. By now I was getting interested and started to time how of much my life they had decided to waste before telling me they couldn’t talk to me. Each attempt took two minutes and forty seconds. I must have done this five or six times, with the same non-result, and by now I could virtually recite all the earlier blah about recording for training purposes, where I could find out how my information was being used and so on.

Then I struck lucky. Instead of being told I would have to ring back, after the all-too familiar two minutes forty of blah I was transferred to a different second message which said: “I’m sorry there is no one available to take your call at the moment. You are being held in a queue and we will answer your call as soon as possible”. The sense of relief, of accomplishment, even of joy is hard to convey in words. But it was short-lived. Some bright spark had decided that rather than give me this message just once and then sit me down to a performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle until they were ready to talk to me, I should be reminded of it every fifteen seconds, with the same piece of mindless music to keep me amused between repeats. I decided to count. I was told I was being held in a queue etc etc thirty-two times before a poor, harassed-sounding young man called Andrew called off my torture and asked how he could help.

I have to say he could not have been more helpful. It was such a pleasure to hear a real human voice that I started cracking jokes with him. We became quite chummy (I do hope his newborn will allow him some sleep eventually). And he arranged my refund with no bother. As one might say, it was a pleasure doing business with him. Eventually.

I tell this story not as an example of the worst we can expect these days from customer service, but almost as an example of the best. It did at least end up with a real human encounter. But if you’re forced to do things online, you don’t normally even get that. It’s you versus the anonymous. And in that exchange the roles are utterly reversed: it’s not the customer who’s always right, it’s the website’s algorithm that’s always right. And it is right beyond any means of challenge. It uses its own language which often makes no sense to humans who speak a human language. It demands information – passwords, PIN numbers, customer reference numbers – you can’t put your hands on. It asks for details (your phone number, for example) but it’s highly unlikely you will get them right. Didn’t you know that on this particular website you don’t put any spaces between the numbers even though on others you must? And then if you get through all this, it will send you a ‘No-reply’ email informing you that what you thought you’d accomplished (and spent the whole morning attempting) hadn’t been accomplished after all. So please try again.

In short the service we once took for granted no longer exists. The service that was readily available and necessary just to keep life running smoothly in our complicated, interdependent world. So it’s easier to do without things than try to wrestle with this virtual, many-headed monster.

I know what some of you will be saying. This is the wail of an oldie, a has-been, someone who has let the bright, new technological world where all life can be lived on a smart phone, pass him by. And it’s true that the young don’t see it like this at all. They know that life is now all about doing seven things at once, so if you have to wait ages to speak, say, to Andrew with the newborn baby, you put the musis and fifteen-second message repeats on speaker phone and get on with doing something else. And if you’re young you learn the language websites are going to speak to you. You have all your passwords and PIN numbers in your head, and you just know, when the algorithm seems to be a litle recalcitrant, how to tickle it into submission. In short, you learn to live with it rather than bewail the loss of a world that’s gone forever.

There’s a lot of truth in his. Anyone over forty trying to live in the contemporary world must make sure they’ve got a ten-year-old permanently on tap. But there is a more serious point here than just trying to negotiate customer service in a world that’s decided to eliminate the human from one half of it.

Wherever our engagement with each other can be translated into data and procedures there is an overwhelming likelihood that the model of customer service will provide the way forward. We’ve seen it discussed in education where (especially in higher education) Covid has encouraged the idea that maybe students and teachers don’t actually need to meet each other, as we used to think was essential to the promotion of learning, but that it can now all be done by Zoom and online. And we’re coming to think that there’s little point, most of the time, in GPs actually seeing their patients. What’s the point, you may ask, If a patient’s conditions can be translated into various pieces of data and the GP has clever data-processing that can chew up all that data and produce a diagnosis and a prescription? Isn’t it simply more ‘efficient’ for the GP/patient relationship to be conducted remotely?

In short, if we can turn real, physical, warm-blooded human beings into virtual entities defined by data, then we can process their needs better.

But there is a vast unasked question in the assumptions behind such a view. That question is: ‘is there anything lost when we turn real human beings into virtual data?’ To which the answer is surely a resounding ‘yes. There is an aspect of our understanding of each other that comes only through our being in physical contact. You could call it an intuited understanding, an understanding that is triggered the moment we meet someone. We ‘read’ their body language, their facial expressions, their way of looking at us. Sometimes that reading tells us far more than the explicit data. Any good doctor or teacher will tell you that.

So perhaps we should stop just grinning and bearing the torture stories of modern customer service. They may be the harbinger of a much more serious retreat of the human from the human world than we are currently experiencing. Trying to extract a refund from a remote and uninterested bureaucracy is but the beginning of this brave new world.

What’s your view? Let us know.