Barnes & Noble Explains Why Its Chat Reps Sound Like Robots

Many people who’ve worked in the customer service field — where it’s not uncommon to be screamed at by irate callers — say it can be a dehumanizing experience, to the point where you sometimes feel like a robot. Then there are the non-humans who desperately want to be flesh-and-blood but can’t cross that uncanny valley. And finally there are those CSRs who might indeed be human, but aren’t doing a very good job of convincing the world of it.

Over at her other job at the Newark Star-Ledger’s Bamboozled column, Consumerist contributor Karin Price Mueller shares her attempt at trying to get various Barnes & Noble online chat reps to prove that the chat was being manned by a human and not by some autoresponding script-bot from Cyberdyne Systems (though perhaps the Tyrell Corporation might be more appropriate here).

Given that some of these auto-responding systems claim a high success rate of fooling customers into thinking they are dealing with a human, Karin — who was just trying to find out the delivery date for some books she’d ordered from — tried her own version of the Voight-Kampff test, presenting chat rep “Aileen” with a little pop culture quiz:

Karin: Because I’ve had interesting experiences with computers who say they’re live people, can you please answer for me before we continue, what’s your favorite scene from “The Wizard of Oz?”
Aileen: I’m sorry but I have not watched it.
Karin: Okay, then, perhaps you could tell me your favorite from “The Sound of Music,” or your most hated movie of all time?
Karin: Aileen, are you still with me?
The chat session has timed out and is now closed.

Well that didn’t bode well for “Aileen,” whose circuitry, whether organic or man-made, could not seem to handle this query.

And so Karin tried again, this time with “Clarissa” —

Karin: … Before we continue, please forgive me for asking, but are you a person or a computer-generated chat?
Clarissa: I am a real person, Karin.
Karin: Again, forgive me for asking, but so I as a consumer can have confidence you’re a real person, can you please tell me your favorite character from “The Wizard of Oz?”
Clarissa: I’m afraid I cannot remember anything from “Wizard of Oz,” but I have seen the movie years ago and I can only remember the robot.

Was her reference to the Tin Man as a “robot” a Freudian slip, inasmuch as scripted computer programs can experience Freudian slips? Or had Clarissa really thought the character was a robot? Either way, it’s not a good sign.

Karin eventually got vaguely human answers from Clarissa…

On her favorite part of a chocolate chip cookie:
“I believe it is the chocolate? It will not be called a chocolate chip cookie if there are no chocolates on it. I guess?”

On her favorite movie:
“I love the movie ‘Thor.’… Chris Hemsworth is my crush.”

All of these could have easily from the speaker of Siri or some other program built to sound sorta-human, but a rep for Barnes & Noble claims that, “All our chats are handled by a person and not a computer… They’re trained and they get scripted answers so they tend to stick to the scripts. There are times you do have to go off script and unfortunately that didn’t happen fast enough.”

What is the point of having humans interacting with customers when all you’re giving the CSR is a script? Customers don’t just want their problems solved; they also want to feel like their business means something to the company (and no, repeating “Your call is important to us” while having someone on hold for 30 minutes does not count) and that they are being listened to. An automated response system — whether it’s human or computer — shows just how little a company respects its customers and its employees.

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