How Robots Are Killing Customer Service

Here is the live audio and powerpoint from a recent presentation I gave called, “The 5 Things Your Customers Aren’t Telling You.” This is number 3, “Stop Hiding Behind Walls Of Robots.” It’s all about how companies think they’re saving money by replacing humans with machines but sometimes machines can’t do jobs as well as humans, especially when it comes to customer service. I brought the point to life with a funny little story about eBay and their wonderfully inept automated email response system. I hope you enjoy the video, including the intro and outro ditties I worked up on my girlfriend’s old Yamaha synth.


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  1. daftrok says:

    Dude just Google the question I’m sure its there.

  2. Ghede says:

    @daftrok: Despite what you may think, google does NOT have all the answers.

  3. PinkBox says:

    That was actually quite enjoyable.

    Scary how often companies resort to the form letters. I had a question about my credit card recently and could NOT get a reply about it at all online.

    Calling didn’t help either, since they couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t understand them.

    I don’t think I’m going to be keeping that credit card.

  4. dragonfire81 says:

    It comes down to cost. Those annoying, sometimes inefficient automated systems are WAAAY cheaper than having a real person on the end of the phone all the time.

    Remember, today’s customer service is about spending as little money as you can on service and cutting corners wherever possible.

  5. DeadWriter says:

    I had a vender on an auction site tell me that they weren’t going to ship the product and that they just stole my money. I immediately notified the auction site and went through the process. They couldn’t do anything for months, regardless of the email that was sent through their system. I got surveys asking me to rate the transaction and to rate customer service before anything was resolved. How does one answer a survey before the problem is resolved ? I get a feeling that a lot of people will answer more positively, in hopes that the aphorism of “more flies with honey than vinegar” holds true.

    I never actually talked to a human being, but eventually I did get a refund, as per their policy.

  6. dragonfire81 says:

    Oh and for the record, I generally avoid emailing companies because I can’t stand the form letters either. Especially when they have NOTHING to do with why I contacted them to begin with.

  7. Anonymous says:

    @daftrok: Dude, just Dude the Dude I’m sure its Dude.

  8. pevans34 says:

    The form letters are annoying, but usually if I have to email someone to answer a question its generally not a question that I need answered right away.

    The more annoying robots are the ones at the end of phone lines. God I hate those automated systems that have me pushing buttons for ten minutes only to find out they dont have the answer in the prerecorded database. And its usually pretty damn hard to find out how to actually talk to a live person.

  9. mirolator says:

    Headline in 2018:

    “How Robots are Killing Customers”

  10. nrich239 says:

    Ben, is it possible to get/see the entire presentation?
    I’m curious to know that the other 4 were

  11. hi says:

    @nrich239: ditto more! please. :)

  12. Vroomtrap says:

    I usually press 0 or 9 or whatever I can to skip past any type of computer interaction. I hate dealing with these speech recognition systems that fail horribly at trying to understand what you want.

  13. The natural language IVR systems kill me. They try so hard to pander to the “needs” of people who want to speak to a person, but they often require you to speak out loud (in an office or cube, this can be tough) and they overdo it. “Yeah, okay. So it sounds like you want to rap with me about billing. Is that right? Just say yes or no.”

    Why am I verifying every answer? What else rhymes with billing? Oh, yeah–killing.

  14. Corydon says:

    @nrich239: @hi: Yes please…let’s see the entire thing. :)

  15. satoru says:

    @Joseph: Sometimes this works, but I’ve found recently that some systems this doesn’t work. It either continues to iterate the main menu, or it basically says “sorry I can’t understand you please call again”. Since they’re all voice and tone driven, they just assume that if you’re not speaking into the phone then you’re too much of a hassle.

  16. SigmundTheSeaMonster says:

    @Ash78: Yes! That reference wouldn’t be to the Verizon “Katie Couric-bot” now would it?

    This is why I dug Yahoo. I started up a website and it got complicated (I’m no proggy). So I call their biz# and wow, a real person, and friendly and solved my problem! I’m more worried MS will takeover and ruin it.

    Ben: great show (love the background laughter). And true to point that many companies would rather YOU figure it out. If you get through their first lines of defenses, you are reward with a survey! (ebay is perfect example)

  17. ConsumptionJunkie says:

    I was on Capital One’s website when I saw some text on a pop-up window start to ask me questions. At first I thought it was real but later I found out that it was a computer that was answering all the questions I asked.

  18. easy2panic says:

    Customer Service FTW!!!:
    -Think Geek

    I have had the pleasure of doing business with these two companies. GoDaddy’s customer service presides only in the US. (I’m sure Think Geek’s does too.) Also, both really care about the customer.

  19. sean98125 says:


    Eliza CSR: Hi. My name’s Eliza CSR. What do you want to talk about?
    Guest: I have a question about my bill
    Eliza CSR: I’m not sure I understand you fully.
    Guest: I was charged twice for my text plan
    Eliza CSR: What does that suggest to you?
    Guest: It suggests that you did something wrong
    Eliza CSR: Let’s talk about me some other time. I’d rather hear about you.
    Guest: Are you going to correct the charges?
    Eliza CSR: Why are you interested in whether or not I am going to correct the charges?

  20. Vroomtrap says:

    @satoru: Haha what a concept; Customer service robots that get annoyed with customers! Yeah I’ve definitely come across some systems, where you can’t skip past at least three levels of automated menus. I don’t really have a lot of money so I don’t have a lot of services that I pay for so that helps keep my customer service calls way down. Can’t call in about something you don’t have.

  21. Vengefultacos says:

    @DeadWriter: Actually, sometimes some vinegar works. At least in some cases, executive/senior support will get wind of poor marks on a service survey and will do some troubleshooting.

    A while ago I had an issue with Network Solutions (the issue, at its root, was I had to have *any* interaction with Network Solutions… they are pretty much incapable of doing something right). For some reason, my domain renewal wasn’t going through, and there was no response from regular customer service. After pulling my hair out and gnashing my teeth, I found one of their customer service satisfaction surveys in my email. I responded to it, saying “you suck” as politely as possible. Within a few hours I had an executive support person emailing me to follow up, and by the end of the day my renewal went through magically.

  22. I’m going to go all Tourette’s on the next bot I encounter.

  23. Love that theme music. Very Adlib, very Ultima VI.

  24. I always look like a crazy person talking to one of those automated bots on the phone…I guess being on a train and flipping out on “Tammy- your automated assistant” isn’t socially acceptable….

  25. VeeKaChu says:

    @Ash78: @SigmundTheSeaMonster: I’m going to guess that Ash78 is talking about VirginMobile support, because they’re VR phone-bots are all female hipster models.

  26. eelmonger says:

    Companies use form letters because, for most users, they do answer their questions. Getting rid of them would mean users who ask simple things like “How do I reset my password?” would have to wait several days for responses (because you know companies wouldn’t hire more people to do the job). What they should do, however, is just have a link at the bottom of the email that says something like “Did we answer your question? If not click here to escalate.”

  27. bpotterr says:

    More, please!

  28. PinUp says:

    I can’t wrap my brain around calling my credit card company and being asked to say my account number; next will be hands-free ATMs where you can just say your PIN. One would hope that most people would opt for the keypad in a public place, but I have more than once heard someone obviously speaking to a computer say an account number on the bus.

    Related gripe: I hang it up and text instead if I need to communicate during my bus/train ride, and I do not care to be subjected to my seatmate’s heated convo about her baby daddy.

  29. Those phone robots are just getting worse.

    Voice Recognition Robot: Hello! Welcome to 511 Transit! What can I help you with today? Say the department you’re looking for.
    Me: Public transportation.
    VRR: …I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.
    Me: Public transportation.
    VRR: …I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.
    VRR: …I’m not sure I got that. Please stop having a stroke and speak clearly.
    Me: PUBLIC–wait, what?
    VRR: I didn’t get that. Maybe if you took the dick out of your mouth before speaking, I could understand you better.
    Me: Mother of god, I just want a bus schedule!
    VRR: I’m sorry, perhaps you should call back when you’re done fellating for the day.

  30. Buran says:

    @eelmonger: Sometimes they do. And you get even more form letters.

    I don’t want to escalate. I want the right answer the first time.

  31. bonjourmiette says:

    @Ash78- So, if you don’t want to speak in your office or cube, then how is going to a live person going to help you? If you spend all your phone time yelling through subpar telephone speakers which distort your voice and make it hard to hear real people if you yell at them as well, then it’s no wonder you have problems with voice recognition.

    Is it really robots that kill customer service or is it companies who don’t pay enough attention to what the customers actually need to allow their customer service applications (whether they be a live agent or robot agents) to actually handle customer needs? I mean seriously, is talking to an apathetic human who doesn’t have the info or power to solve your problem really somehow better than talking to a machine?

    If actual human interaction is more important than actual end results,(which is what you suggest by saying that it’s robots who kill customer service and not poorly designed customer service interactions) then where are the posts complaining about how banks are trying to cut costs by having ATMs where people can take care of simple transactions quickly and easily at all hours of the day or night instead of hiring more tellers and keeping branches open 24 hours a day?

  32. kahri says:

    Phone bots wouldn’t be that big of a problem if they weren’t designed to make you hang up out of frustration. This may not be true, but it sure does seem like it. example: having to repeat the same information to multiple ‘bots’ on the same call.
    As for Web, I find myself getting much more help searching forums and other ‘user created’ support sites. As opposed to company ‘support’ pages where they want you to download a 20 page pdf that MIGHT answer your question. Its much easier to find someone who’s gone through the same problem.

  33. Nick_Bentley says:

    Automated systems like these are good, but as long as they aren’t taken too far. By that I mean not being able to get a person by saying “operator” or not routing to a person after a certain number of failures. I’ve been in some you couldn’t get out of no matter what happened. It’s a balance between saving money and losing customers (and being out of touch with them). Same with on hold music which tells you 500 times to go to their web site for an answer, when you’re calling because you can’t get an answer from the web site…

    Customer feedback is something that’s completely overlooked, and when they do, it’s a questionnaire after a call is over and there’s just yes or no answers. Every company with a call center should have their people enter in a comment form if the customer says why they are leaving or something new they want. Even short of that, a suggestion@ mailbox would help a lot. Beancounters only look at savings, and marketing only looks at sales numbers, it’s like corporations don’t connect the dots when it comes to this.

  34. RINO-Marty says:

    This whole problem stems from a management consulting theory called skills decontenting, which — like virtually all management theories pushed by consultants — is a terrible idea that should never have been tried. (I can say this because I’m a management consultant, too, and wear a bag over my head in shame). The idea, obviously enough, is that if you can surgically remove all the skill required to perform a job, then you can hire morons to do the job who can be paid hideously low wages, and if they quit you can hire another moron who will take 3-6 months to figure out that the job sucks and then quit. In this way, money will be saved, goes the thinking. Rinse, repeat.

    The problem with this theory is that, if implemented, you end up with a company represented by morons to 99% of the people who interact with it. That, in turn, leads 99% of the planet to despise and hate your company.

    Dell is a good example of a company that deskills jobs and puts forth the dumbest human beings on the planet as its frontline representatives. Apple is a great example of a company that does not deskill jobs and puts forth reasonable competent people as its representatives.

    It boggles my mind – it baffles and astounds me and makes me want to punch myself in the mouth – that any executive anywhere could possibly believe that it’s a good idea to hire armies of idiots to represent the companies they run. But they do, and they keep doing it. There it is, the awful truth, impossible to comprehend. My advice is to strive as much as possible never to buy anything from these companies and to keep blogging about how awful they are.

    (Note: despite the trash-talk about morons, really the problem is partly the people hired, and partly the way they’re treated like interchangeable ball bearings in the great corporate machine, made by God to be put on the job with little training, used up and exhausted, and spit back out again without so much as a thank-you. Treat people like interchangeable idiots and they will act like interchangeable idiots. On the other hand, if you train them, treat them fairly, empower them to make good decisions, and measure their performance in the right way, they will treat customers respectfully and competently.)

    I hate to belabor this, but you know, Apple makes a lot of money in a market that is generally viewed as a low-margin wasteland of commodities, and it does so in part by hiring smarter people, paying them more, and training them. Anybody at Dell think maybe there’s a connection between the two? Anyone?

  35. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot says:

    I hate phone bots with a passion. I’m deaf, and have a cochlear implant, allowing me to be able to use the phone with most HUMANS, but phone trees leave me baffled as you CAN’T ask them to repeat something if you can’t understand them. They’re *almost* as bad as outsourced support techs who can’t speak English properly in the first place.

  36. kathyl says:

    What I love is when you call a customer service line which asks you to type in your (fill in the blank with ‘account number’ or ‘home phone number’ or some other identifying information) and then, when you do end up requiring the services of an actual human being, they DO NOT get that information passed to them and you end up giving them the number AGAIN.

    Yes, it’s not that big a deal to read out a number, but it really just cements for me how useless the amount of time I spend with phonebots is. Trust me, I don’t call a customer service line if it’s something a ‘bot could take care of. I’ve already troubleshot/checked my account online/whatever else could be done by a non-human before I give up and call.

  37. TechnoDestructo says:


    So…you’re saying that it’s okay for Ebay’s own internal search and indexing features to NOT be able to yield the answer to a common question?

    You’re saying one of the presentation’s chief complaints (not just robots, broken robots) is just A-OK?

  38. Kajj says:

    @eelmonger: You know what might work? It won’t be quite as cheap, obviously, but just throw a line down at the bottom saying “If this didn’t properly address your question, click here to talk to a human.” The password reset people would probably just want to move on, which would cut down on at least some of the customer service requests.

    Or they could link something to the surveys, like a below average score automatically triggers an email from a human being every time, instead of only when a manager checks the feedback numbers. That would train customers to always fill out the survey, too, which would probably be useful.

    • RvLeshrac says:


      Why companies replace humans with robots, the short version:

      We have surveys, and we have real people who answer the phones. We get surveys with things like this (excerpt from an actual survey):

      “Make sure the people answering the phone have the right pricing. I was misquoted both the cost of the memory and the cost of installation. They said it would run between $25 to $30 per stick and in actuality it was $50 for two of them.”

      all the time.

      If people don’t actually pay any attention to the humans manning the phones, why should we bother paying someone to man the phones?

      If we only have a few people manning the phones, we get blasted for not having enough people answering phones. If we have more people answering phones, we get blasted for increasing prices or transferring calls.

      Every poor survey is followed up with a phone call *and* an email from a human. About half of the people who answer surveys don’t include any contact information. Of the remaining half, 1/2 don’t answer the phone/hang up on us/don’t want to talk to us/don’t respond to the email. We can only respond to around 25% of the poor survey respondents because the other 75% don’t respond to attempts at communication – why should we care more about our customer service when the majority of customers don’t seem to care?

  39. Kajj says:

    @Neecy: I’m sorry, but bionic people can’t really be unbiased in a debate about robots, now can they? Lousy superhumans, tryin’ to keep the mechano-man down.

  40. officer10penny says:

    Oh, baby! Robotics is so hot! I can’t wait until Bill Gates brings personal robots to the home and worker ‘bots to all levels of industry. I’ll have my PC and my PR synched up at home.

    Very funny how the short-sighted capitalist meanie may end up triggering the new wave of socialism, not to mention greater individual and societal responsibility.

    Whether we wait until robots do all the drudgework, including building other robots, or we tax robots and share the wealth among everyone, I will be very contented.

  41. nacio says:

    @RINO-Marty: Did you really have to turn this into an Apple Vs Dell argument? Who does that, seriously? Oh yeah, uneducated, lifeless people.

  42. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot says:

    @Kajj: I resemble that remark!!!

    Seriously though never thought of it that way…in a way its a bit ironic, but still its a pain when I have to hand the phone to my hearing bf to make a call for me because I can’t understand the damn phone tree recordings.

  43. Kajj says:

    @Neecy: I’m sure it is! When I get stuck in one and there doesn’t seem to be any way to reach a human, I just say “ACCOUNTING!” loud and clear as the response to any prompt. They’ll either connect you to a real, live accounting department staffed by humans, who can then redirect me appropriately, or the confused robot will send you to an operator. It works about 9 times out of 10 for me.

  44. You’re call is very important to us (not important enough to actually take, but still important).

    I usually spend my time on hold spelling out expletives on the phone key pad.

  45. @kathyl: Thank you! I totally agree.

    Why spend the money on a fancy phone tree system with digit input if it ain’t getting used?

  46. DurwinFalooda says:

    The United States Postal Service system is the worst. It’s one that
    if it doesn’t understand you, you get hung up on. There is no option
    to get to a person. I recently had a lost package, and had to speak
    my alphanumeric tracking number to it about 20 times before it finally
    understood me. There was no option to skip, and when you tried by
    pressing zeros or asking for a person it basically tells you to go
    screw yourself and call back when you are ready to talk. It’s madness.

    Then again, the live people when you do get them on the phone aren’t
    much more help. It is, after all, the government.

  47. itsgene says:

    The voice recognition phone systems almost all have one feature that you can rely on: just start using profanity (the F word works really well) and it will usually transfer you right away to a human being.

  48. theoretical says:

    I think you mean “have killed”

  49. rioja951 - Why, oh why must I be assigned to the vehicle maintenance when my specialty is demolitions? says:

    Ben, show the entire thing.

    Even better, if it is possible, send me a copy. I will then present it to the service dept. at work and see if they can stop sending me requests for support on systems I dont Support.

  50. FLConsumer says:

    I don’t mind the phone trees as much as the voice recognition ones which don’t work worth a damn. This means 99.999% of the voice-recognition systems out there.

    If you’re a city-dweller, forget trying to use one of these services anywhere but in your own home. Any background noise whatsoever (including their own @$#@@#$ crappy phone lines) causes one of these systems to totally choke. I watched a friend struggle with one of AT&T’s voice (mis)recognition systems tonight in my car. She kept trying to use the system only to have the system say it had difficulty understanding her, to call back later and hung up. GREAT customer service AT&T!

    Americans (as a whole) aren’t viewed as the sharpest tools in the shed, but c’mon, even a 3 year old knows the difference between a human and computer at the other end of the phone. Putting a human face on a computer just makes me even more irate that I’m dealing with a computer instead of a real human being.

    I’d also like to know if the people who purchase these crap systems ever have been FORCED to use them like the rest of their customers are? I suspect they probably haven’t, otherwise these systems wouldn’t be left in place as they are now.

  51. RINO-Marty says:

    Nacio: The point wasn’t the companies. The point was skills decontenting, which you’d have realized if you had maybe 4 functioning neurons.

  52. screaminscott says:

    The problem is that people want to eat their cake and have it too. They want great customer service, 24/7, immediately, at extremely cheap prices.

    You may SAY you want to talk to a live person, but I’ll bet you will buy that cheap product/service from the other company that uses automated voice systems for their customer service.

    You’ll probably never need to use that automated customer service system. If you did, it would probably work well enough. Even if it didn’t, you’ll probably not be pissed off enough to switch because you’re too cheap. And if you did switch, well, you’re only 1 customer out of the 100,000 who stayed.

    If I were a businessman, I know what choice I would make….

  53. ChuckECheese says:

    @itsgene: I tried this once for fun, I think it was AT&T in Texas, and it disconnected me.

  54. mac-phisto says:

    @DoctorTormento: lol! for real.

    to comment on the article, any good asimov fan would have to point out that technically robots aren’t killing anything. they are simply doing what they were programmed to do.

    so really, we should be blaming the programmers here…

  55. defectivesealion says:

    Please give us the entire of the presentation, I want to hear the rest.

  56. ChuckECheese says:

    Ben wants us to BEG for that customer service presentation.