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Urban Junkie

Friday, September 09, 2005

Push-button wonders

Once upon a time the ultimate tech fantasy was the humanizing of computers. Bright-eyed engineers plowed their genius into the creation of the perfect robot with no room for human error: someone who could take over all tiresome human tasks efficiently and uncomplainingly. Then an awful truth dawned on someone somewhere: if computers became human, what would humans do? Where would our jobs go? And so began the reverse invasion – if THEY could mimic us, WE would mimic them. If THEY became more intelligent, WE would become less so. If THEY acquired greater flexibility, spontaneity and complexity of responses, WE would become perfectly predictable, simplified automatons. Ha!

Nowhere is the success of this strategy more evident than in the world of customer service. Try if you can to alter the following greeting:
This is a response programmed to go off at the ring of a phone followed by the sound of a customer’s voice. And go off it will, no matter what. Speaking from the experience of a seasoned pizza orderer I can tell you it is pretty near impossible to stop it, change it or interrupt in any other way. I have tried many tricks, including beginning with a pre-emptive ‘no, I don’t want your free coke offer’ – but the speech above is relentless and will run its course.

The only strategy that is partially successful is to dial the number and remain absolutely silent. I stumbled upon this purely by chance, but having tried it a few times I am delighted to say it works most of the time. At the absence of a customer’s voice some sort of error seems to register and what we get is
“Good-evening-Dominoes-pizza-this-is …er, hello?”

The human automaton was actually invented by Indian Airlines many years ago, though it has been a largely unsung pioneer. Remember the steady monotone of ‘tea-please-coffee-please’ as the airhostess made her way down the aisle? Or the masterfully consistent delivery of ‘veg non-veg?’ without as much as a change in inflection? The newer airlines have built a bit of courtesy into the programme but the original principle remains intact. So now we have “may I offer you some coffee ma’am” delivered in a bright and cheerful voice rather than “coffee please” in a grim and threatening one.

Today, of course, the automaton industry is a booming one, exemplified by call centers. The new world is full of twice-born wonders who have mastered a handful of perfect responses to a handful of triggers – often in an alien language, sometimes in an alien accent. At times I suspect they may not even fully make sense of the questions they are trained to recognize and the responses they are trained to give – but what does meaning matter as long as the delivery is correct and the job gets done?

The strange thing is that our own responses become automatic in response. I switch off for 15 seconds after dialing the Dominoes number, knowing I have to give Chetan time to finish his pitch before I can begin. I sometimes forget I am talking to a ‘person’ when I dial-in a call center – forgetting the basic greetings and social courtesies. I rarely listen to the security warnings at the beginning of a flight, even though I am urged to.

This is not really a criticism of slick-and-automated customer service. There is no denying the jobs created by call centers or the lives that have been transformed. I don’t even deny the huge difference the call center industry has made to customer service – from no service at all (the bank queues, the engaged telephone lines, the dour voice telling you to ‘come personally to the shop’) we now have at least the possibility of a solution at the push of a button.

But can we go a step beyond the automaticity that we now witness? Do we have examples of people remaining engaging, spontaneous and human, even while delivering standardized responses? I love the anecdotes of Southwest airlines … the humour built into the in-flight announcements, the sense of fun, and the sheer innovation underlying all interactions. I wonder if it is possible to extend this spirit elsewhere ...


  • There's a flip side to what you are saying Anjali.
    Constant contact with automated responses really makes us impatient in our daily lives. Very often i feel the urge to press a button and skip irrelevant stuff being mouthed by people around me. In fact i find myself wishing i could put people on hold when they exhibit signs of verbal diaorrhea. It's so much easier dealing with automated responses...you either switch off or hang up! No offense meant and none taken!

    By Anonymous Tara, at 4:48 AM, September 11, 2005  

  • Just remembered another example of a monotonous routine being done interestingly. Ever seen the TGIF birthday song routine?

    By Anonymous tara, at 4:51 AM, September 11, 2005  

  • Yes, the TGIF birthday routine is a lovely example.

    I know it's easier dealing with automated responses and being automated in turn. Easier, but surely not a happier state of affairs?

    By Blogger Anjali, at 7:20 AM, September 11, 2005  

  • like everything else, this could also be a loop.. customisation to automisation to customisation.... and the next time, lemme try “Good-evening-Dominoes-pizza-i dont-want-to-go-for-your-free-coke-offer-can-i-leave-my-order-please?” :)

    By Blogger manuscrypts, at 1:28 AM, September 12, 2005  

  • Good posr

    By Blogger Shivaji, at 2:41 AM, September 14, 2005  

  • enjoyed reading your post so much that i checked out the other ones you have written too.

    By Anonymous sreekant, at 8:47 AM, September 14, 2005  

  • cool post .. damn cool blog

    cheers mate!

    By Blogger Saltwater Blues, at 7:53 AM, September 15, 2005  

  • shivaji, sreekant, swb : thanks :)

    By Blogger Anjali, at 8:44 AM, September 15, 2005  

  • Anjali, thoughtful post. I remember on one of the flights to Chicago from DC, the Southwest stewardess was singing a song, and my son joined in. She promptly included him in her commentary and said, "Well, ladies and gentlement, we have some in-flight entertainment for you this afternoon..." It was refereshing to say the least.

    By Blogger Sujatha, at 9:33 AM, September 15, 2005  

  • Yes, that's a lovely example of spontanteity, Sujatha. Southwest could have easily lapsed into providing automated 'fun and entertainment' ... it's great that they keep the spontaneity alive.

    By Blogger Anjali, at 6:05 AM, September 16, 2005  

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