Tag Archives: customer service

black bar

Passing Up Fluency for a Camera

The idea that a picture is worth a thousand words is an old piece of logophobia that excuses our rusty descriptive skills.

I can’t count the number of times in the last few weeks I’ve been asked to send a picture to a company about one of their products. Fixing a newly purchased home has meant some upgrades. So when a new refrigerator arrived with a dent, a call to the seller got the response, “send us a picture.” Similarly, a brand new water heater did everything except heat water.  “Send a video” noted the plumber, who seemed not to hear my explanation of its futile on and off cycles. Ditto with the purchase of a new light fixture that came broken on route from Los Angeles to our front porch. “Send a picture of the damage” was the request of the seller. Incredibly, it seemed unlikely to them that the delivery service could have mangled the awkward box in its 3000 mile trip. Even a request for any new household account can now means downloading images of utility bills, or various forms of proof.  By themselves, none of these requests are outrageous.  But there seems to be a trend.

The point is that verbal explanations presented to an increasingly rare customer service agent now seem to count for very little. And there’s this:  visual verification of a problem represents an unmistakable shift of the burden of proof from the seller to the buyer.

We have a leaky rain gutter on the top floor of our townhouse.  I’m sure that when I get around to it, my call to the person who is responsible for roof repairs in our development will request a request a picture.  Since it is a continuous drip rather than a waterfall, and since water falling from a roof will not photograph well, the image will probably show nothing.  I could substitute a photo of Niagara Falls, but that seems a tad passive-aggressive.

When did consumers need to become videographers?  Why has it become the consumer’s job to document a problem beyond what he or she has been clearly described?  Does a request for a photo unburden the service provider to be a keen listener? We are told good doctors carefully listen to what their patients say. But that is bound to be less true if they are distracted by their own computers and diagnostic equipment.

I suspect I’m not the only older person for whom a phone still sits somewhere on a table rather than permanently grafted to their left hand. Using it as a camera still comes as a slightly unnatural act: another use of an awkward device that is essentially a bad computer, a bad keyboard, and a producer of subpar audio.  And now we want it to be a Leica.

The larger issue is whether we are abandoning the idea of talking through a problem in the false hope that a picture will be a good substitute. The old piece of logophobia that “a picture is worth a thousand words” sometimes seems to be an excuse to give up on verbal fluency. It’s a significant loss of our cognitive powers to ignore the more absorbing dance of thought and expression.

black bar

Revised square logo

flag ukraine

black bar

Giants That Struggle With The Idea of Personhood

The hard truth is that many rich mega-giants have lost the will to engage directly with their customers.

There was a time when major organizations had enough employees to deal with customer problems. Name the organization—a media outlet, a service provider for a utility, a business dependent on selling products and services—and there was usually a person ready to receive a question or complaint. “Customer service” meant a company tried to be available to those with whom they had a relationship. That is still true in business-to-business communications. For example, Ford certainly expects that a supplier will take their calls. But the public and social media side of the ledger usually offers no such chances. In a quiet revolution, A.I. robots have taken over customer relations while the rest of an organization sits behind walls of anonymity. Thousands of employees in the offices of Google, Microsoft, Apple, and scores of other companies are mostly insulated from the people that use their services. Commercial in even modest-sized organizations  are now careful to not list contact information.

There are outstanding exceptions in almost every area.  Amazon still offers phone help. At least a few years ago the electronics giant Onkyo was happy to put me through to an engineer to solve a technical issue. And local businesses show a lot of patience to still deal with customers.  But the “virtual assistants” up and running in most larger enterprises pull the con of giving a person’s name to microchips and algorithms that offer simulations of the human voice or texting, all with the increasingly lifelike lexicons of real human rhetoric. The great leap in speech-mediated A.I. can be awesome, but it has given us a kind of zombie intelligence that can only “think” in binaries and fake comprehension.

All of this takes personhood out of the equation, with real and often sad consequences. Imagine, for example, the fate of a new widow facing a labyrinth of health, state, county and employer bureaucracies to be contacted after the death of her partner. A few will be appropriately responsive.  But others will throw up a filibuster of recorded phone directories and “try again later” messages. Lately even Social Security can’t be bothered to pick up the phone.  And COVID is a poor excuse. If a person can still do interoffice communication with their colleagues, they can still represent an organization to customers or clients.

The hard truth is that many rich mega-giants have lost the will to talk directly with their customers. None of us would think it would be a good use of our time to try to call Facebook, Apple, or Microsoft. Granted, they have a lot of customers.  But most haven’t developed a graded gatekeeping system that would allow private and serious users to reach them.

I a challenge with Google  that is a good case in point. I have two Google e-mail accounts: hardly unique. But in this massive organization’s self-contained world–even using my real name, passwords and my patterns of internet usage–I am still “Person 1” and “Person 2.” And they are pretty sure that one of us is up to no good.  I benefit from using Google Analytics data for this blog. It does what Google does best: track, count and sort. But person 2—who, I swear, looks exactly like me in a mirror—apparently has no business even asking to see the data. Sadly, they think they are being useful to warn Person 1 that Person 2 is trying to break into my account. Ditto for Microsoft, with confounding and insistent new logins to expose what they see as different accounts hacked by robots. In the name of security, the idea of personhood has more or less been lost on them. They think a real person can read laughably smudged CAPTCHA tests. Meanwhile, these companies have moved on to creating networks they are selling as “teams,” apparently not noticing they have yet to master the basics of authentic one-on-one communication.

My more computer savvy friends will tell me there are workarounds for these inconveniences, especially if I am willing to take them on as my second job. But they are missing the point. In many cases there is only a useless “virtual (non)person” to “chat” with. Even a two-year old can detect the fraud of a fake human being passed off as the real thing: the original basis of the previously discussed Turing Test.

To be sure, organizations feel like they are under siege from product users who call insistently because they can barely understand the services they purchased. But these companies have abetted the constant connectivity they now want to run away from.  For sure, Americans have all but surgically implanted their phones in their right hands. Not-so-smart phones have become substitutes and surrogates for many of us. But its all part of their world these giants created, and they need to find better ways to deal with their users as humans.

No wonder electronic games are so popular with more Americans. They can make interacting fun—even if it is just with a machine. At the same time, many of us our losing our capacities to deal directly with others in the kinds of collaborative problem-solving that existed just a few generations ago.