Customer service keeps getting smarter

For reasons too mundane (read: petty) to get into here, I have a special dislike for a company I’m not particularly interested in getting other people to dislike, and okay hating all on my own. But for the sake of having a name to attach to the antagonist in this little anecdote,  let’s call them Poverty Shack. Among the company’s other shortcomings, it seems that if you even walk by a Poverty Shack you somehow get onto their mailing list, so that once a month you get a brand new 240-page catalog of expensive new stuff painstakingly made to look old. Err, refined. Heirloom quality, I believe is the look they’re going for.

I’ve called to cancel my ‘subscription’ to the Poverty Shack catalog maybe a half dozen times in the past. But at some point in the past couple of years, they kicked their brand assault strategy up a couple of notches. How I got back on their list, I don’t know, but I’m willing to concede it may have happened while I was Xmas shopping, drunk or under the influence of friends or relatives. Regardless, they know who I am and where I live. And now it’s two catalogs a month. One a week during Non-Denomiantional Holiday Shopping Season. And now, deserving of its own catalog, the Poverty Shack Kids collection. It’s like they’ve chosen the dark path blazed by PC/Mac Mall/Connection in the Nineties, but somehow legitimzed it hiring a photographer, designer and reasonably competent copywriter. [SIDEBAR: should you perhaps be seeking to legitimze your own marketing efforts by hiring a photographer, designer and reasonably competent copywriter, send me a holler. I, uh, know some people].

Anyway, enough back story. I get home tonight. There’s the new Poverty Shack catalog. I call their 1-800 number to ask them to stop sending it to me. As with you, I don’t feel any need to bother the customer service representative with the specifics of why I hate the source of her livelihood, and the call goes something like this:

POVERTY SHACK CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE #437M61A:
Good evening, and thank you for calling Poverty Shack. How may I provide you with excellent customer service?

[NOTE: Yes, I’m paraphrasing for dramatic effect. For now]

ME:
Yeah, hi. I just got your new catalog in the mail, and I was hoping you might be able to take me off your mailing list.

POVERTY SHACK CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE #437M61A:
I’ll be happy to assist you with your request to remove you from Poverty Shack’s mailing list. I hope there wasn’t a problem.

[NOTE: Okay, this next exchange is verbatim.]

ME:
No, nothing specific. It’s just that I don’t really look at it, and it seems like a shame to be filling up the landfills with unlooked-at catalogs.

POVERTY SHACK CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE #437M61A:
Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.

And that was when I remembered that, as real as she sounded, I was talking to a robot.

Rather, not an actual robot, like C-3PO or Dr. Theopolis from Buck Rogers. There was an actual, thinking, breathing human being on the other end of the line, and she sounded genuinely sorry to hear about my negative shopping experience, not looking at her company’s catalog and behaving in a distinctly un-AlGorian manner with it. But the sincerity of her sorrow had the tinny ring of scripted empathy sort of like Haley Joel Osment in AI. [SIDEBAR: kid should’ve won an Oscar for that role.]

All of which serves as groundwork for the point I’m actually trying to make, which is this: Corporate America (as well as, near as I can tell, Corporate Canada, Japan, India, China, and Philippines — for all I know, it could be a complete global plot) is trying their good goddamnedest to create artificial intelligence. Big deal, you say — so are the eggheads in academia, gaming, library science/searching, finance and, hell, pretty much anything that uses Teh Interwebz? Fair enough: the distinguishing feature with the corporate plot for telephone delivered customer service is that the goal is to develop an infallible, sincerely believable AI which is delivered by people.

Let me back that truck up and hit you with that again, just in case you avoided full impact the first time. What we (I might as well admit to being part of the problem) are trying to do is develop a means of conducting business with people in which the ‘intelligence’ of the business’s portion of the conversation works stimulus/response based on customer input according to a pre-specified set of instructions — to be delivered by a person rather than a recording primarily for authenticity. The system is the brains of the equation. The person is a dumb terminal. Like an ATM or card-slot security door. Maybe a bit friendlier. And, depending on the system, possibly empowered to make cognitive leaps.

I totally understand the why of all this. Even well-trained customer service drones can’t possibly hope to have better hit-to-miss rations than a well tested script. And it goes without saying (I hope) that the people best qualified to field customer service calls of any description are the ones doing the work, not the ones manning the phone bank. But it would be nice if they were empowered to behave like humans.

And on that, I offer a link to one of the best short stories I’ve read in the past couple of years (props to Rob B for bringing it to my attention, whenever that was), Mana, by Marshal Brain, that perhaps planted the seed this whole rant grew from. Enjoy.

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One Response to “Customer service keeps getting smarter”

  1. Tried to leave a comment, but the free Wifi in Saginaw, Michigan was pretty haphazard. Nancy Kress had a short story read on EscapePod which posited that people can do computer like things if we could just get rid of the interrupting thoughts that pop into our minds all the time. So the real test I suppose of whether or not the person you were talking to at Poverty Barn (oops, sorry!) is an AI or a person, is whether they were playing Minesweeper while talking to you on the phone.

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