I am frustrated to say the least! The Christmas order which I placed online has not been acknowledged by email (as promised) and I simply want to establish that it has been received. Online sales are all very well… when they go well… but if you need to make human contact…!

Yesterday was the third time I had telephoned, and again I was first obliged to listen to a spoken advertisement, suggesting I purchase the very item I had in fact ordered! I was then invited to participate in the well-known party game of, ‘Please select the option that most suits your enquiry’.

With an inward groan (similar to that which many of us experience at the mere mention of many party games!) I accepted the invitation and was once again subjected to the impossible task of circumnavigating an automated answering system!

Trying to get into the spirit of things, I imagined myself as a detective, trying to solve a mystery that someone else had worked hard to cover up. Finally, I found my way through the maze of options, and was offered the chance to speak to a human being.

Or so I thought!

Dial ‘0’ to speak to our customer service representative

“Press ‘0’ to speak to one of our Customer Service representatives”, sounds like you’re close to human contact, but I was taken as a fool. It was just another layer of automation, parading as human.

Having pressed ‘0’, I was immediately presented with a range of different types of Customer Service representatives I may like to speak to. I didn’t understand my options so pressed ‘4’ by way of random choice, and waited.

The wait was short. But the disappointment and frustration continued to lengthen as I heard the words: “All our Customer Service representatives are busy resolving queries from other customers right now, but they are aware of your call and will be with you as soon as possible”.

No doubt I was supposed to imagine a busy and dedicated office, full of hard-working individuals, each focused on dealing with incoming calls in a timely and efficient manner… and be impressed. Call me cynical, but for some reason my mind pictured a single, (less-than-well-motivated) inactive individual, surrounded by any number of automated lines, all flashing red lights in a desperate but doomed attempt to gain attention. In fact, maybe there was no-one there at all!?

Meanwhile, I was paying for music that I didn’t want to listen to! Time dragged on…. with each 30 second landmark being recognized by the interjection: “Thank you for holding. Your call is important to us. One of our Customer Service representatives will be with you as soon as possible”.

After around six or seven such interjections, I could not stand it any more. I felt like my enquiry, and to some degree I, myself, were falling into an abyss. A black hole of automation! No one cared! Clearly the machines did not care. And clearly any remnants of human life-form, still existing within the deep labyrinths of that organization, did not care either…!Automated customer service

Clearly I was losing touch with reality, as I rang off and collapsed into the reassuring comfort of my armchair. I placed a cushion on my lap, onto which my supportive cat obligingly positioned himself. A period of therapeutic stroking duly followed – until the cat got bored and walked off.

Today, I reflected on my experience. I was somewhat perturbed by the memories (not least the realization that I do not actually own a cat!) but decided I would not be beaten.

Trying again

A couple of hours later, I gathered my strength, and set myself up for a fourth round of the, ‘Please select the option that most suits your enquiry’ game! Using an innovative combination of selections, I embarked on a new strategy with some enthusiasm… but inevitably, the automated system again resorted to a slow, deliberate and impassionate strangulation of my enquiry. Drawing me in with spurious offers to track down my order, every step was punctuated with the increasingly empty apology: “Sorry to keep you waiting!” I was left hanging on the line to become more and more frustrated with my enforced subjection to the music and lyrics of: ‘What a wonderful world!’

Suddenly, I found myself speaking to ‘someone’ (another machine actually) ‘who’ sounded much more helpful: “Hello. You have selected Customer Service order enquiries. To help our representative handle your enquiry quickly and efficiently, please spell your surname.” I duly obliged. “Thank you. Let me just enter that into our system.”

Then followed the sound of a keyboard being typed. I have no idea whether the actual keys being hit aligned with the letters I had just announced; I imagine not. But either way, what struck me was the illogical thinking that had introduced this sound into the system. While attempting to make giant strides in automation, supposedly gaining greater speed and efficiency than human operators are capable of, the system was now slowing down to include the sound of keyboard typing to make the automation appear more human! Does anyone else see the irony here?

Why not just use a human!?

The computer-person / automated human spoke again: “Please provide your post code.” Once again I obliged, and once again was rewarded with fake keyboard sounds. “Please provide your order number,” came the next request.

“I don’t have an order number”, I replied. “I’m sorry, I did not hear that. Please repeat your order number.” I repeated the fact that I did not have an order number. “I’m sorry. I am not able to register an order number. If you are unable to provide an order number in the next ten seconds, this call will be terminated.”

I felt somewhat offended, by this sudden turn of tone. Forgetting who (or rather ‘what’) I was speaking to, my emotions were stirred: “I DON’T HAVE AN ORDER NUMBER you stupid machine, I am trying to trace my order because I have not received confirmation of my online order and therefore I have no order number! Do you under…..” I was rudely interrupted: “I’m sorry. I am not able to register an order number. This call is being terminated. Thank you for calling.”

“What? No you just wai…..”


My fury was now full grown. “How dare they treat me like this! Wasting my time! Passing me from pillar to post! Refusing to answer my query! And to cap it all, a machine has now put the ‘phone down on me!!”

I put down my own receiver in a manner that seriously endangered its delicate parts.

“I’d jolly well like to give them a piece of my mind”, I yelled: “If only I had a way of getting hold of them!!”Human customer service

I felt deeply offended, and I hadn’t even talked to anyone. I reflected that machines had now developed human-like abilities to frustrate, annoy, insult and offend. Is that progress!?

Oh that this were an isolated incident. But far from it! I have experiences like this on a regular basis. And you probably do too! The robotic attempts to emulate human voices and activity are constantly evolving, and the reality is that global domination by robotic answering machines has already reached an advanced stage. Call me neurotic, but I do seriously wonder whether there are any humans still working for some of these companies at all!

Or, is the truth simply, that humans are increasingly being duped into installing these systems, to cover all kinds of responses, in the mistaken belief that they do make an effective substitute?

Who are these humans? Do they ever make calls themselves!?

Anyway, ‘Happy Christmas’ everyone! 

Some serious business questions you may like to consider for the New Year…

  • If your organisation has automated answering services, are you aware how they work and what they say?
  • When speaking to people who have come through an automated answering service, what emotional state do you think they might be in?
  • How is it possible to retain the positive reasons for installing automated answering services, without unduly compromising the value of human interaction?
  • How much compromise is reasonable?
  • What is the effect of this compromise on your organisation?
  • Based on your own experience and knowledge, do you have any ideas for improving the human side of customer service responses?

Keyturn Training offer a wide range of support in developing high levels of effective Customer Service. We’d welcome the opportunity of speaking with you. See our range of personal development courses at this link: Personal Development programmes

Visit the Institute of Customer Service for more information and courses on customer service.