Wednesday, October 19

Help. Let's have more HI. Less AI.

Help. A little assistance with a query about a service or product. It doesn't seem much to ask but try getting someone to respond in any meaningful way to a problem these days. In recent weeks I have tried to get help from several banks, a hospital, an insurance company an on-line sales organisation and Google and in every single case I have got nowhere. I have not even got nowhere fast - it's been a slow, tedious and very annoying process every time.

On the occasion when I have finally found a human to speak to I have suggested that they try their own system and relate at their next management or training session to the boss their own experience, if not mine. Many people do seem to be sympathetic and yet nothing ever changes. I can only guess that the middle managers who have put these systems in place have no desire to admit that they may have made a mistake and so their bosses don't get any direct evidence of the failure and any statistics which might reveal some dissatisfaction are either hidden or, if shown, regarded as something now which applies across the board and so there becomes a sort of feeling that if everyone in the same industry is suffering the same way there is not a great deal they need to do about it.

It all starts with the telephone system or an on-line page which asks you to select the area for your query. Often you may not actually know which of the many choices offered are the most appropriate. On the phone, you select one and hope for the best, only to be told, usually several steps down the line, that there is a 63½ minute waiting time or, horrors, there is no-one available to take your call and please try again later. Brrrrrrr. All this is, of course, interrupted every minute or so by a voice claiming that their website has all the answers you need and just go there and you'll not need to phone anyway.

On the web page you might have a list of possible questions that they think you were going to ask. None match what you had in mind. Others, a little more advanced they believe, try to second guess your query from the freestyle text you can enter. This works even less well for me. You search all over an organisation's page for a phone number, email address or some other way to get help. Cleverly, all help and contact links seem to bring you back to the same place. Very occasionally you might reach a page where there are some more options. One might be to have an online chat. You type in your question and hope. No, it's not a person but the same search engine as you encountered before which tries to second guess your query based on what you type and gets it quite wrong.

Once or twice I did find a human at the other end of the chat line. But all the human was able to do was the same as the telephone choice system elsewhere - refer to some sort of flowchart. She asks the questions and, depending on my answers, is guided through the chart until she reaches a conclusion - I need to speak to a representative. Yes, I knew that. Thanks. Just tell me how.

My questions are not Masters degree level challenges. I might need to make a transfer of funds which cannot be done by one of my banks online for some reason I don't understand. I have a problem to resolve with a customer of the online trading company. I want to change an appointment. I have a website built with Google tools and want to get Google to promote it so that people using Google can find it more easily. You'd think that would be the sort of thing Google would love to help me with. They even have AI systems now for lots of their services. Their telephone staff seem to lack even human intelligence, though, as the first encounter I had was almost robotic as the girl struggled to work through her flowchart of responses and actions to be recommended to the caller.

The nice chap in the States that I did finally get to speak to was human and did have a little more intelligence but all he could do was sell me some advertising. He did understand my query and that I would not buy any advertising until I had made some charges to the website to make it work better with Google but was still unable either to tell me who I should talk to or to head me in the direction of someone who could actually help. He finished up emailing me a link which I had hoped would be to an individual who might be in a senior enough position to straddle both Google's technical and advertising departments and advise me accordingly. The link just went to a page where I had started several days ago. The 'type a word and we'll try and find out where you need to be directed' sort of page. AI that is more artificial than intelligent regrettably.

One thing that seems evident to me is the standard of competence of the individuals that we interact with in these conversations. It is very poor. We are often dealing with one of the lowest levels of staff in the organisation who follow a sort of script or the flowchart type thing I've referred to before. They're not doing anything more than a computer program would do. They seldom have much of a clue as to the problem you have or your own situation or any experience of your business or activity. I might not expect that from the first person I deal with but I do think we should get to speak to some more senior people at a much earlier stage. 

There is a lot to be said for putting smart, knowledgeable people on the enquiry lines for part of their day. They would minimise the time that it takes to deal with queries and also be better placed to make changes in an organisation where the level of customer enquiries merited this. 

The stupid phone choice systems and on-line help flowcharts need to go as I doubt they help anyone very much at all. Give everyone a phone number and an email address. Employ extra staff - there are plenty of people available - to answer those calls and make more senior staff time available to take calls referred to them. Get teams to check emails and pass them to the right people and make sure they're actually dealt with in a reasonable time. If things go crazy and there really are times when the phones go mad then have a system where people call you back. This is so much better than making us wait. And the music . . . what is that! No-one I have ever heard from has any desire whatsoever to listen to that 'holding music' which is nearly always of terrible quality and at an uncomfortable volume to boot. Mad. Don't tell us to consult a website. We're calling because we want to talk to someone. Let us talk to someone. And let that someone be human and intelligent, please.

It this really too much to ask? The whole nation seems to have been totally conned and taken for a ride by idiot middle managers who think a program some organisation has flogged them to 'manage' calls will answer all their queries and ours too. I know of none, anywhere, that has been in any way a success.

Some organisations which have got it right are First Direct Bank, PayPal (once you find their number!) and UK2.Net domain management. The customer service from these three has been remarkably good in my experience. In every case I have had access to a comparatively senior, intelligent member of staff who gets what I need, understands what I say and knows what to do to respond and retain my business.

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