As computers continue to replace cashiers, ticket vendors and bank tellers, consumers increasingly don't notice or care much whether they are dealing with a human or a machine. The big exception is when they do.
Consumers often prefer the convenience of interacting with computers. A checkout employee who doesn't know the price of Gala apples adds grit to the smooth functioning of an over-scheduled day.
But when things go wrong at the self-checkout, they can go very wrong. Suppose it freezes halfway through the purchase of 15 items. Hardly life-threatening, but that speed bump could cost five or 10 minutes — more if a human isn't nearby to right the ship.
TV/internet/phone services embody the deep divide between human help and the computerized kind. That's because a) so many of the glitches defy computerized instructions and b) the companies do all in their power to prevent you from connecting with a human not in sales.
Being slightly above average in technical proficiency, I'm a good test case for assessing the ability of a website or automated voice to produce a solution. And I wouldn't dream of even asking for human help before exhausting every computerized option.
I start with a thorough Google search and go through all the frequently asked questions. But when the provider's website asks whether the problem is a, b, c or d, the "d" should always be "none of the above." Often it is not.
Visiting online forums is a last act of desperation. Others may share my problem, but usually no one can answer it. Or some demon (a Russian troll?) urges us innocents to take a screwdriver to the equipment.
Suffice it to say, I don't show up at the emergency room of customer care with a sore throat. When I ask for a skilled professional, I really, really need one.
I fully appreciate that my cable company has customers at every level of technical know-how. Some people need to be told that unplugging devices and then plugging them back in often solves the problem. (You don't have to know which ones. Unplug them all.)
Short of hiring more humans to do customer triage, the companies would do well to use artificial intelligence to determine the level of the vexed ones' expertise. The words and phrases typed in or spoken to the mechanical voice should provide strong clues. When that person seems to be maxed out in ability to solve a problem, then the company must produce a human to step in.
Perhaps it's because I have an expensive plan, but my TV/internet/phone provider did send out a cable guy to clean up the mess created when another cable guy upgraded my modem. The second technician was tasked with, among other things, finding out why my printer wouldn't connect wirelessly with the new network. It worked fine with the old one.
Technician No. 2 said he couldn't figure it out and, in addition, his wife had the same problem.
"Buy a new printer" was the advice. I did, and the wireless printing now works. New printers are cheap.
But I had wasted four precious hours following useless online instructions and then jumping through fiery hoops to get to a human voice. I thus found myself casting new curses on top of the old curses related to the cable company's outrageous monthly charges.
It should not surprise anyone to learn that cable operators and internet service providers tie for last place in the American Customer Satisfaction Index survey of 43 industries.
We know that human employees are expensive, but so is losing customers. Humans are often the last hope for solving problems — or simply telling us it's hopeless.
Save the humans.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.