The Extinction of “Customer Service”

There was a time when, if you had a problem with a new service or appliance you bought, you called an 800 number, spoke to a live expert, and got your issue resolved. Well, that’s history, right?

As we entered the 21st century, as voice-recognition technology improved, as Big Data expanded to gather a myriad permutations and combinations of human behaviour, and as a bad word called “FAQ” became ubiquitous, smart companies began offloading routine tasks from humans to robots. Very soon, complex tasks got offloaded too. Somewhere in this transition, complexity became the consumer’s problem, not the manufacturer’s. It was around this time that asking dumb questions around the dinner table went extinct; we got used to a new expression: “Just Google it.” Then Google bought You Tube and the training manual went out the window too. The era of self-help had arrived.

Company accountants rubbed their hands in glee. They could re-engineer millions of non-revenue-generating costs out of the system. Forget about outsourcing the customer service call centre to India (where costs were escalating as those third world citizens got wealthier) – let’s just decommission the entire CS department, they said, and move “Support” to a combination of e-mail query, online Chat, and that damned FAQ. Eight-hundred numbers? Meh, we could just get rid of them and their huge telecom bills!

 Gradually, consumers got used to being able to order anything they wanted at the click of a button, but were lost at sea if they clicked on the wrong button. “Sorry, we have no trace of that order” would be the unemotional response. “So, what should I do?” “Sorry, we have no solution to that question in our database.” If FAQ did not have the answer to your question, an e-mail response could take up to a week, and the online chat operator was often off duty (some of them had also been phased out, post-Covid). I admit that efficiencies which previously did not exist, abound now, if everything goes well. But when it doesn’t, which often is the case, then what…?

I work in Publishing today, one of the few fields left open to me, for the dozen or so jobs I formerly held in other professions or industries have vanished or been subsumed by the machine. In the course of my present job, I interface with designers, distributors, printers, social media, online retailers, press, and other intermediaries in a long supply chain that converts an author’s manuscript into a finished book and gets it into the hands of a reader. Each intermediary has its own process and software that demands conformance. Therefore, I often need help, for there are frequent incompatibilities and breaks in this convoluted pipeline. Once, there were many people around to render assistance. Gradually, these eager beavers stopped responding and have been replaced by the machine.

Now I’m told that the machine is savvy enough to write its own books; just feed it all the data, plot points, desired outcomes and character traits of the principal players and it will churn out your next potboiler (and it will not even need an editor). Text-to-audio is already here and able to emulate masculine and feminine voices, with inflections to boot. As well, text-to-image and text-to- video is around the corner, if not here already in beta formats. When all this goes prime-time, I will be Robinson Crusoe on his island, without a Man Friday. 

The moral of this story is that the human-machine interface is here to stay in whatever industry we are employed. That both sides will still need each other in order to produce the goods and services of the future, we hope. The balance of power depends on how much of each is needed to perform a transaction. Currently however, that balance is tilting in favour of the machine.

The customer will have to be satisfied with standardized products that perform efficiently (and sometimes inefficiently due to suspect quality control), not uniquely. They will also have to tolerate delays when the interface breaks down. And as for guys like me, we will have to trust in machines, for there is no way to reduce our reliance on them; in fact, the dependence will grow until the point of complete human abdication arrives and it’s time for me to retire to that island.

As for calling Customer Service, the mantra is “don’t!” if you don’t have to. Cultivate patience instead, until help arrives via a phone call being finally answered, or an e-mail response from the cloud, or a relevant answer posted on the FAQ. Or just cancel or throw out the faulty service or appliance and purchase a new one, and hope that it works this time. And don’t change anything if it works! “Don’t Fix It If It Ain’t Broke” has finally got meaning.

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