Are you being treated like another machine?

You are almost always ‘transacting’ with a machine today. Checking in for a flight at the terminal, buying groceries in the store, jumping on the metro, or withdrawing money from the bank rarely involves human interaction. Many businesses — and their customers — opt for self-service technologies in the belief that automation streamlines services and makes everything smooth and efficient.

“But,” says Galen Gruman “automation has to be essentially flawless — both operationally and with its user interface — to be dependable, and that's hardly the norm. If you've used a self-checkout stand, you know how confusing and unreliably useful such systems are.”

A flight delay one night last week reminded me how technology can hinder customer service, and how easy it is to treat people in an impersonal manner. My flight flashed up ‘go to gate’, only to be greeted on arrival by non-activity and milling passengers.

“We are waiting for the flight crew to arrive — should be 10 minutes — but no one tells us anything,” advised the staff at the customer service desk when I enquired. Time in the terminal dragged interminably. Another flight was called and boarded at the same gate that was showing my destination. More chaos as confused people tried to board the wrong flight. 

Tweets to the airline support account went unanswered.

When we were finally in the air the pilot advised us that flights had been delayed since midday due to issues with one of the runways. i.e. the airline knew in advance that the flight was delayed and why it would be delayed, and did nothing to tell their ground staff or their passengers.

Their eventual response to my tweet, apologising “for the inconvenience” missed the point entirely. I fly all the time, and accept inconvenience as part of the routine. The frustration was being kept in the dark. The frustration was in being treated like another piece of equipment to be shuffled around.

“We apologize for the inconvenience” is not an empathic solution-oriented response but what sounds like unsympathetic machine generated code.

I noticed a recent tweet in a similar vein: “Why would [the airline] automatically assign us seats in the emergency exit row when reservations clearly have a four-year-old and an infant listed, who are not allowed to sit in the exit row. So there are no seats together except the plus seats, which cost an additional $100.”

And how about this story about passengers who were stranded late at night after a plane was rerouted. The airline offered passengers food vouchers but everything in the airport was closed. An airline employee said there was nothing they could do. That’s when a pilot from a competing airline ordered pizzas for the passengers. Is it customer service when they customers are travelling with another airline? Or is it plain old care for fellow human beings?

Nobody likes receiving banal, scripted responses. Such impersonal non-resolutions do not constitute “service” but only offer a mirage of responsiveness. 

I have no doubt you could tell stories about your worst customer service experiences and how technology helped or hindered.

However, what about the opposite: what are the ways technology is being used to genuinely enhance your personal experience as a customer? What can be done to authentically personalise customer service?