Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Consumers Can’t Avoid Computer Bots

You may have heard some people complain that when they used online chat on some big business’s website, they were chatting with a computer bot instead of a real person. You might think this isn’t a problem for you because you don’t use chat features on websites. Think again.

The dream of big businesses is to run their customer interfaces with computers rather than employees. Most of the time I actually prefer to do things myself on a website, such as banking transactions, travel packages for my phone, and even some troubleshooting. However, there are times when we need to speak to a person to solve a problem.

After you’ve waded through phone menus, listened to music for several minutes, and finally get a person on the line, you may not really be getting human responses. Increasingly, call center employees just read computer responses off a screen. As these computer algorithms get more sophisticated, call center employees make fewer decisions on their own.

Even your local bank branch will have you interacting with computers. It’s common for bank tellers to try to upsell you on bank products. One time I happened to have a view of the teller’s computer screen when the upsell came. The exact language the teller used appeared on screen: “Hey, have you thought about opening a TFSA?” This is creepy, and it’s getting progressively more common.

With each passing year, customer-facing employees of big businesses have less discretion to make their own decisions. They can’t overrule computer decisions. For now, what they can control is what they enter into the computer. I remember pointing out a small dent in a stove being delivered to my house. The delivery person said “so you’re refusing delivery, right?” He had his finger hovering over a small touchscreen waiting for my answer. I wasn’t sure how to respond. “If you refuse delivery, they’ll send a new stove at no extra cost to you.” I was being helped to give the right response so a computer would decide to send me a new stove.

A few years ago, my bank upped the amount of cash I could withdraw per day from cash machines, but I had to do it in two transactions, and I was getting hit with two withdrawal charges of a dollar each. The branch manager reversed one of the charges, but told me she wouldn’t be able to do it again in the new year because much of her discretion was being taken away. Even branch managers have to do what computers tell them to do.

The next time you’re frustrated with an employee at a big business, remember that getting angry at the employee doesn’t help. Low-level employees have little discretion; company policies are set at headquarters and are transmitted throughout the business by computers. Be polite, stand your ground, and maybe the employee will poke the computer in such a way that you’ll get what you want.


  1. I actually believe this does give us better service and lower prices most of the time. It makes sense that low level employees can't always choose the best thing to do in common situations.

    But understandably it is hard to deal with. Everyone has to think like a computer programmer and most people will hate that.

    Even when you're well informed there are weird things. I recently needed to increase my credit score and I gained nearly 100 points by re-arranging some balances between accounts. That's a little more indirect but it's something where you can easily game the system if you know what's really happening.

    There's no easy solution to this. Lots of people are happy to complain but they won't pay twice as much to get a personal interaction.

    1. @Richard: I agree that computer use generally gives us better service at lower prices. But the exceptions are a problem. In a situation where a customer service employee would feel badly about lying or treating a customer unfairly, a computer has no problem. This makes it easier for people far from customers to make profitable rules that treat customers poorly.

      I find few people understand just how little authority customer service employees have. Being able to game the system is even rarer.

      There are some people who complain about automated customer interaction, but much more commonly, people complain about whatever dispute they're having with the business.

    2. Customers also make choices that reward the businesses that trick them. Like advertising something and not mentioning there are a lot of fees and taxes on top of that. Any honest ads will be ignored because they sound so much more expensive and most people won't back out once they realize the true cost.

      People also love to complain that they didn't get a good enough service and the company is just ripping them off to maximize profit, when there was a better option available and they just didn't want to pay the cost for that. What we get is largely a reflection of what we choose.

      That's not to say that you're always better off if you pay more to get personal service instead of dealing with an automated system. Sometimes inflexible rules are actually better for most people. Same reason that luxury cars can break down a lot more than a cheap one.

    3. @Richard: What you describe applies in some cases, but I'm mostly concerned with big businesses like banks and telecoms where there is no meaningful competition. Poor service and tricky advertising are unavoidable with these industries, at least in Canada.

    4. In those cases it would be the regulation that is the problem. In other countries the front line employees may be just as restricted, but with a much better outcome.