OPINION: Putting technology in the way of interacting with customers is an insult

Angry furious senior business man working on computer, screaming. Negative human emotion facial expr

Companies can't behind virtual assistants, says Rachel Moore, for they offer poor customer service - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Hello, I’m Freya, your virtual assistant,” - words to send any frustrated customer desperate to speak to a real person to near-apoplexy.

After navigating a technological obstacle course to ask someone a simple question, a computer pretending to be human saying she doesn’t understand the nature of your enquiry would make a saint scream.

Freya insists she can’t understand what you are saying. Because the company doesn’t want to hear what they don’t want to hear so have programmed her with a neat list of questions to make it easier for everyone but the customer.

Replying to ‘her’ with a short sharp “complaint” might do the trick to get moved to the next stage, only to end up with a lengthy ringtone followed by: “We are experiencing a higher than usual volume of calls. Our staff are very busy helping other customers.”

All very clever and cost-saving (that means getting rid of people’s job in company HR speak) but evasive, slippery, unhelpful and the very antithesis of customer ‘care’ that companies claim to deliver. And it’s getting worse.

These deliberate barriers to put people off ploughing on with the endurance test of fighting their way through to speak to an actual person by companies that take our money for services is getting outrageous.

The reluctance to engage with their customers tells us all we need to know about their contempt for us. Take the money and hide behind technology. It’s easy to do and we let them get away with it because we’re too busy to do anything else.

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Then to add insult to injury, after trying to get through to a business – domestic appliance services, insurance and banking are worst offenders – the companies send you a feedback survey.

I’ve regularly filled these, marking 'one' for extremely dissatisfied, but I’m yet to have a follow up call, showing what a total waste of time and box-ticking exercise, they are.

I’ve just filled one in about the service to deliver my replacement washing machine. It doesn’t even arrive until next Monday, after nearly four weeks without one because of the company’s shoddy customer service.

They can’t even get their time right, so I’m not holding my breath to hear back from them about a demand for compensation and waiver of an installation fee.

And, after more than a year of Covid, it doesn’t wash anymore to continue to blame the pandemic for limited or shoddy responses from businesses. So quit with that excuse, please.

Putting technology in the way of interacting with customers is a growing insult.

Yet businesses are so proud of how they use technology, heralding it as progress. Clever in terms of innovation maybe, but how is worse service and obstructing customers with communication brick walls progress?

Just because a machine can do something doesn’t mean to say it should.

The next big thing to replace people with technology is shopping deliveries, with flocks of buzzing drones filling the sky on the way to doorstep drops.

There’s the moral issue of people losing jobs and putting another nail in the coffin of human interaction – no wonder loneliness in the UK is another epidemic with people going days, even weeks without speaking to anyone.

But why do drones need to deliver shopping? To beat the vans in heavy traffic? Our roads are clogged, so let’s clog up the skies instead rather than address the root cause.

Traffic is ridiculous. Since lockdown ended, it takes half an hour longer to get anywhere than it did when everyone was staying at home.

But the answer isn’t to use technology to avoid it and instead fill the sky with sinister-looking metal delivery robots.

Meanwhile, we are on the cusp of the next step of the growth of the drone industry and services now the Civil Aviation Authority has now granted permission for a West Sussex-based technology company to trial-operate drones beyond the line of sight and without needing authorisation for each flight.

A start-up in Ireland has been running a drone shopping delivery and has now raised millions of pounds to bring the service to the UK towns later this year.

I love an enterprising idea – when someone has a nugget of a concept, can see a gap in the market and has the faith and energy to invent a service to fill it, like this company. We need entrepreneurs.

But the flip side can be a devastating real-life effect, in this case people losing delivery jobs pushed out by drones.

Relying on technology can backfire, as anyone who uses supermarket self-service tills can testify. And every time I skip a cashier’s queue to do it myself, I always have a guilt pang that it’s doing a young person out of a part-time job.

Then there’s the nascent self-driving vehicles, which could be allowed on UK roads by the end of this year, the government has said.

Human error is the single largest cause of road accidents and self-driving vehicles could prevent 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives over the next decade.

It feels like the beginning of the end.

We’ll end up as hopeless useless beings, no skills needed. And it’ll happen quickly.

Show me one young person of the Sat Nav generation who didn’t complete a Duke of Edinburgh award that can read a map...