Technology And The Decline Of Service

As the world develops, and technology gets better, will we forget the essence of relations between two people: how to serve?

I live in Indonesia right now, which is probably the service capital of the world. Not necessarily in terms of expertise, and certainly not in terms of quality of goods (despite having some of the best carvers in the world, don’t count on it extending to a sofa, table or cabinet you have made for you). But Indonesians working in hotels, restaurants and shops are among some of the most attentive, helpful and flexible I’ve ever come across. They’re polite, helpful, genuinely friendly and show extraordinary flexibility, given the poor training and wages they usually receive. A five-star hotel in Indonesia has probably the best level of service in the world.

But all this will eventually change, just as it has changed in the West. In communist and former communist countries the quality of service was undermined by poor training, poor wages and low motivation. But this is true of any bureaucratic set up — and it’s true in Indonesia, proving that while quality of service can be tied to the emphasis, or lack of it, on hospitality to strangers in a culture, it’s not the only factor. An Indonesian bureaucrat can be as awful as a North Korean or Russian.

As technology forces more self-service upon us, so too will these bastions of good service pass. From supermarkets to gas stations, from airports to help-lines, the notion of one human serving another is gradually disappearing. Some will think this is a good thing, mistaking service for subservience. A waiter is only subservient if the customer makes him so. There is dignity in service and only a boorish and overly demanding customer undermines that dignity. I worked in a bookshop for three years and loved every minute of it, making customers happy by matching them with the tomes they sought, the only blotches being rude customers who didn’t understand that we loved (and read) books as much as they.

So as technology replaces humans in these interactions, what happens to us? We end up stuck on the end of automated telephone lines, sending emails into a customer service abyss, increasingly alienated from corporations that spend all their money on saying how personalised their services are (one bank keeps talking about how it understands local customs, but when I complained they had failed to complete a telegraphic transfer to a bank in another country, they asked me for the bank’s telephone number. How much understanding of local conditions does that reveal?)

Finally, I fear that the decline of service will make us as humans increasingly remote from one another. Some things are indeed best automated, but humans are hard-wired to communicate with other humans. It’s what keeps us sane. But as service becomes self-service, I fear we will just become more selfish, like those people who overfill their plates at all-you-can-eat buffets. Serving — and being served — are what keep us civilised.

‘Say ‘Five’ After The Tone If You Want To Curse One Of Our Customer Service Computers’

The good news: We don’t have to use those silly touch-tone menus anymore when we call our friendly utility. Now we can speak to a real computer.

A report by Chartwell, an industry research service, says that more and more utilities “are implementing or investigating speech recognition for their interactive voice response units, and advocates say the technology has the potential to revolutionize automated customer service”. What this ‘revolution’ means, it turns out, is that customers can use voice recognition to report outages, or even conduct “customer self-service” (I love that idea! Why didn’t I think of that?) such as billing, payments and updating account information. As someone who has just tried to resolve some thorny billing problems relating to my mother’s poor choice of electricity and gas utility in the UK, I can only say: Yeehar!

Here’s Dennis Smith, Research Director & Manager of Chartwell’s CIS & Customer Service Research Series: “Speech recognition is a progressive customer self-service tool that can be extremely valuable to a utility, provided it is designed correctly.” Incorrect designs are, among other things, unfriendly self-help service menus. Oh. So we don’t get to chat with a computer, we get to say ‘two’ instead of pressing two on our touch tone phone. That’s progress.

This is another bit I like: The report includes case studies on what it calls ‘progressive utilities’ (as opposed to what? ‘Regressive utilities’? ‘Incorrect thinking utilities’?) utilizing speech recognition technology. One, We Energies, “after concluding that many of its incoming calls related to billing or payments, implemented a speech system in order to offer customers a more personal and prompt way to conduct business without the assistance of a customer service representative (CSR)”. I am particularly happy the customer service representative has an abbreviation: Given it’s the only one in the report I can only assume that assigning an abbreviation is what happens prior to downsizing. And how, exactly, can you have a ‘personal’ way to conduct business using a computer? More personal than what? Pressing the keypads on your phone until they sink into the plastic moulding?

Look, I’m a big fan of computers, and I’m probably still reeling from trying to find an email address I could write to to complain (there wasn’t one; even the website wouldn’t recognise my Mozilla  browser and suggested I upgrade. You’re a utility, for God’s sake! You’re selling electricity! It’s not as if you’re selling Porsches, or smartphones! What if I was some elderly person wanting to check my electricity bill? Jeez) but I don’t get it. I always hoped that computerisation would free up staff so they could talk to customers, find out what’s bugging them, try to make things better. I guess that’s never going to happen now. We’re going to be sitting there in the dark, the electricity long gone out, the gas fire cold, saying ‘four… six… six…. I said SIX’, our voices echoing down the hallways, for eternity. Please, give me an CSR. I really need a CSR.

You can buy the full report, Speech-Enabled Customer Service Applications in the Utility Industry for $350 here.