Dealing with Automated Monoliths

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Welcome to the era of the self-service platforms, automated monolithic machines wrapped in consumer-friendly branding.

Have you noticed that it’s getting harder and harder to talk with a live person? I have.

Amazonian Journey

My wife just accidentally processed an Amazon return request on an item that we later decided to keep. The user interface is excellent for doing the most common of tasks. But go off the beaten track, and you’re in for a little digital adventure.

I first tried rooting around Amazon Help pages for ten minutes or so to try to help myself. When that failed, I tried finding a contact number. Again, lots of pointing me here and there before I found the link. The good little end user that I am, I had my return authorization number in hand, I was all ready to chat with someone. But then I ended up getting the run-around by a semi-intelligent chatbot that managed to irk me a bit before eventually deciding to hand me off to an actual person, in India I’m guessing, who finally helped me process my issue. Total time elapsed? Maybe twenty or twenty-five minutes.

The Black Hole of Self Service Platforms

My story is nothing special, of course. We’ve all had the experience of wandering around in the digital circuits of self-service platforms. First, it was over telephones and clicking “one” for English. Now, it’s websites and chatbots.

To be clear, I’m not so much complaining right now as I am observing. As end users, we are becoming increasingly used to interacting with a kind of black hole when it comes to working with the self-service platforms of the new economy. By “black hole,” I mean we pour lots and lots of our own human time and energy into working with these systems, while very little in the way of human energy actually comes out.

We think we are talking with companies in the same way that our parents once did, but we’re not. Increasingly, we’re talking to machines. We’re getting used to it, but every once in a while we have that experience that makes you realize exactly what’s happening. That happened for me today on the Amazon site.

Talking into the Void

Three months ago, Google announced quite suddenly that it would be shutting down its Google+ social network. Since then, I and a small group of people have been trying to work with the company to help other end users ease themselves off the service by helping them extract their data an move it to other services.

The best way to describe the experience is that, once again, it’s like orbiting a black hole. Humanity goes in, but very little comes out.

Google+ has no customer support. It’s a free service with no paying customers, so Google has followed the lead of many other self-service platforms and simply decided not to offer any customer support. There is an online Google+ Help community where people can go to ask questions. But most of the work answering those questions is done by other end users, some of whom have been deputized as “product experts” by the company.

That has worked alright until now. With the decision to shut the service down, a crisis has erupted and thousands upon thousands of people try to figure out what to do with all the social connections they’ve made and the content they’ve poured into this service since June 2011. People are begging Google for more details, but it’s like talking into the void. Lots of human energy going in, but almost nothing coming out.

Welcome to life in the era of monolithic self-service platforms.

14 comments

  1. Gideon, I am so happy to see that even someone as high-tech and computer savvy as you gets to deal with the same increasing frustrations as I do. Just yesterday, in calling American Airlines AAdvantage, the polite “computer” answered, saying “Hello, Gordon, I have matched your phone number with our records.” Except that I am William, not Gordon, and “he” could never understand my stating that he had the wrong person. After repeating “agent” repeatedly, he finally said, “OK, but first I need some more information.” I am a DirecTV customer, and ever since AT&T, who one would think would be a specialist in call centers and communications, bought DirecTV, try calling their customer service. They attempt to do everything by computer voice, but the computer can never understand what I am needing, and then if he finally says “Let me connect you to someone”, the hold time is forever, with the repeating message, “We are experiencing a heavier than normal call volume. Please wait.” How about, hire more operators? Enough of my stories, but you sure hit a hot button, and unfortunately, as you indicate, this is only going to get worse. Another thing I see is in McDonalds, with all of their fancy new kiosks, customers are standing at the kiosks trying to navigate the screen to order their Big Mac and Fries, while meanwhile, 2 or 3 cashiers are standing at the counter, where one can place the same order in a fraction of the time as at the kiosk. OK, no more stories.

    • Thanks for sharing your stories, Bill. The call volumes being heavier than normal starts to get a bit suspicious when you hear it every single time you call. Another favorite is “your business is very important to us.” These statements start to ring hollow when not backed up by actual investments. This is what automation looks like when it hits the service economy though.

  2. Thanks for expressing what we all are experiencing! Makes for good comedy skits. Free services are one thing but even more disturbing are companies that take your money and then treat you to website stabbing around events to eat up your time and NEVER answer your question!

  3. Ever so true description of the waste of human energy in navigating today’s world of customer service. I will say I’m thrilled when i find good customer service. It’s out there but too few and too far between.

    • Yes, Ragini, it’s like discovering an oasis walking around in the desert when you happen to stumble upon that person who’s willing to stick their neck out and treat you like a human. So oddly comforting. And I think that’s some sort of reflection of the stark contrast of these new systems.

  4. Gideon — I was so dismayed when Google shut down their Google+ service. And now to learn that they haven’t helped the users recover their data is truly an outrage. Lots of people, such as you, invested tons of energy and thought into conversations on Google+. The least they could do is help you recover the data. The graphic that you used on this article looks all too appropriate!

    • Thanks for the comment, Fran. Yes, the destruction to community that this has caused has been surprising. It feels strange, actually, since for the most part these aren’t people I know in the physical world. But we’ve spent a lot of time learning together, exchanging ideas, etc.

      As for Google and the data, I should be clear, they do offer a data extract service and it works relatively well in the sense of pulling data down to your desktop. But what good is that? I’ve used a third-party tool to now import much of my content into this website. I’ll be writing more about that later to share the experience.

  5. You had more patience than me. I tried calling Apple, and got stuck in their automated routing system, and I knew they wouldn’t be able to help me with my problem automatically, but getting a real person was Frustratingly Difficult. I found myself raising my voice at the automated agent! (and I have heard that they can tell if you are angry). When I did, get through to a real person they were very helpful. But likewise, it took about 25 minutes of my time.
    The other ones that bug me are the automated agents that make you enter in all your id numbers, and then the first thing the person asks when you get the on the phone is for the id numbers.

    • I’ve heard that too about raising your voice and the systems being able to tell elevated stress levels. I just saw that there’s a company called Sharecare that claims their app has accuracy levels of 92% – 94% in detecting human stress. Interesting…I was wondering whether this was more urban legend than true. Turns out, it’s true.
      Update: I just looked a bit more closely as this is something that relates to some of the research I’m doing and I can’t really find any examples of customer support software that actually does evaluate voice stress levels. That Sharecare app is just a consumer app that’s more for individual stress reduction.

  6. So true … Even in France, and even with companies or administrations much smaller than Amazon. And what is worse, when you eventually reach a real human to talk to, oftentimes she is unable to help and waves at her screen with a vague “nothing I can do really, it’s the system/computer/logistic platform (whatever). So the “human in the loop” is more and more as much at lost as the end-user.

    • Yes, Bernard. I think you touch on an interesting point, which is that as these systems intensify, there is a tendency to treat the human in the loop as just another module in the algorithm, constraining down what he or she is allowed or resourced to do.

  7. Thank-you Gideon, this is a great capture of the G+ experience. The communities, the relationships I built and the posts from folks like you have influenced my life significantly. I am truly grateful for the time and experience and I’m sure those relationships will continue going forward.

    My heart is broken over the Google+ demise, perhaps more so over Google’s lack of empathy or understanding of all those who made it what it was.

    And to add to the customer service thread… I’m currently disappointed in Google Fi’s customer service while trying to replace my faulty device. Their customer service was amazing while in Beta.

    I was thrilled that I’d found a replacement for the monoliths of phone carriers and devices that also provided excellent customer service and coverage. I’m hoping my latest customer service request actually does get escalated and the result is a seamless experience.

    Onward and to an even better experience on Solid. Cheers!

    • Sorry to hear about that, Mary.

      It actually is quite remarkable to see the outpouring of love that people have had for this social network. It really is the case that that original team did create something special and its soul still hovered over the service even as it was denegrated by one bad decision after another over time.

      Thanks for reaching out.

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