Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.
In a previous blog, I spoke about outsourcing, and the trade-offs for both companies and consumers, given the practise of many companies to outsource customer support globally. Here I shall speak about a related issue — the current tendency of most companies to skimp on or omit human customer support altogether. I shall illustrate this by describing three hours I spent yesterday and today trying to find a nearby store that had a USB-C to VGA converter for my Mac laptop.
I tried five different stores in two different cities: Best Buy, Apple, Jump+ (a Toronto computer and supplies retailer), and the computer stores of both the University of Toronto and Columbia University, where I am starting to teach in three days.
My experience with the bookstores is easiest to describe. I looked up the number of Sales Support on the Columbia University IT Department webpage. When I reached the number, it proved to be incorrect, and it referred me back to the webpage. With the University of Toronto, I found the number for Technology Services at the bookstore, which sells computers. I got a person who did not know the phrase “computer peripheral”. She was clearly unable to answer my questions. When I asked for the person in charge of computers, it took her a while, but she couldn’t find anybody. Then I asked just to speak to someone else. That person told me that the bookstore no longer handles Apple products. So here we have a case where humans are still hired, but competence is not considered a job criterion, and training is clearly inadequate.
When I phoned Jump+, I got a long, recorded message which told me how important my call was to their company. I picked the desired option from a voice menu, but I was connected to a number that never answered and did not take a message.
I called Best Buy seven or eight times over two days. I was given a choice of five different departments. I tried the three most probable departments, in some cases, several times. Never once did I reach a human being. Only in one case was I given an option to leave a message.
I achieved success with Apple. although I had to call twice. Both times I got a computer that was courteous enough to tell me that it was a computer, and then asked me to state my question in plain English. How was I to phrase the question in order to get to the right department? First, I said that I would like to speak to someone about buying a part for my Apple Computer. The computer sagely said it would connect me to Sales. But no one in Sales ever answered.
So I decided to try again, and to phrase my query differently. I would ask a question that required someone to respond quickly, because the matter was reasonably urgent. I asked to find out if an item I had ordered had arrived in the store yet. I have no idea what was understood by the algorithm at the other end. But it did connect me to a human being, who responded within about 30 seconds … a real live human being who seemed to speak with a smile and exhibited some empathy when I told her the highlights of this story. Lo and behold, the Apple store had the part in stock. They even tested it in the store for me with my computer and a VGA display they had.
What are we to learn from this story? It appears that only companies that sell high-end items such as Macs feel that they can afford to provide timely, competent, confident customer support. The habit of modern companies to skimp on or omit altogether sales support causes huge customer frustration. The impact is worst on individuals with challenges, for example, vision problems impeding use of a website, hearing problems hindering use of the phone, emotional problems making it difficult to sustain the energy and patient to call five different stores in 15 attempts over several hours, and technology literacy and comfort challenges for many seniors.
FOR THINKING AND DISCUSSION
Have you had similar experiences? What can be done about this problem?