Everybody Hates Natural Language Autobots

Lately I’ve been thinking that I haven’t been writing enough here about GuerrillaCap’s core mandate – price stability and full employment. Wait, no, that’s The Fed, along with ensuring higher stock markets.

GuerrillaCap’s core mission was supposed to be talking about how small and independent businesses can compete with megacorps. The other night I was thinking about this and noted that it really comes down to one thing: customer service. That’s the one area where economies of scale work against the megacorps and in favour of the indie business.

Megacorps do anything they can to improve operational efficiencies inside their customer care departments, because, after all, it’s only the customer. They’ve already got them in the door and with size comes that complacency that the customer is pretty well going to just take whatever treatment they get and be grateful for it, especially if the megacorp is shrewd at erecting lock-in structures around the captives customers.

(Sidenote: A burgeoning space are various types of brokers who can “go-to-market” for you for products or services that have high switching costs. The value proposition is there when the broker shoulders the logistics of switching you and finding you the best deal. In many cases the broker is paid by the gaining provider so it really is a no brainer for the customer).

A few weeks ago I needed a new safe for my wife’s office because we were about to go away, and I wanted some place safe to stash some stuff before we left. I decided I’d just call my local bank branch to ask if they have any safety deposit boxes available. Should be simple, right?


First I have to find the phone number for the local branch and the one on the corporate website is wrong. The nice lady whose business I did call got enough of those that she had the bank’s number on-hand and gave it to me.

Then I actually get through to my branch, and I get the auto-attendant *groan*, it sounds like a chipper prep school jock, the kind you wanted to punch in the face from the first moment you ever met. He cheerily informs you that he’s automated, and he’ll be recording your conversation for some idiotic patronizing bullshit reason that isn’t pure ass covering.

Now, here’s where I’m sure the bank paid some high tech consultancy a ludicrous amount of money to come up with “now make the customer say why they’re calling, so they’ll feel like…. it’s a human, so they feel a connection, like they’re talking with a friend!” (high-5’s around the boardroom, skip the focus group this is so good….)

The autobot has no fucking idea what I’m talking about “safety deposit box”, who the hell ever calls for that?

The algo loops a few times as I try the old standards “agent”, “operator”, “go to hell” finally it decides to pass me through to “the next available agent”….

Just as soon as I speak my 16 digit customer card number into the phone.

That’s where they lost me.

Within the next minute I just ordered another safe online that was delivered to my wife’s office the next day. Problem solved.

And that’s what these companies invariably miss. They think “what are you going to do, find some other bank that doesn’t have a half-witted voice driven auto-attendant?” But that’s the wrong thought.

They should be wondering, what  other avenues are available to a frustrated customer who hates dealing with this crap, and are we pushing our customers toward them? They’ll go some other route where they don’t have to talk to the autobot. Even a key-push IVR is more straightforward and less frustrating. In this case: ecommerce FTW.

The takeaway, in my mind is thou shalt never try to gain efficiencies by employing voice driven auto attendants, the only thing they’re efficient at is antagonizing your customers.

At my main business (easyDNS), we have live phone support 7 days a week, email support during off-hours and it’s never scripted, never autobots and when it comes to phone calls – no voice mail hell. One or two rings, three on the outside and most likely you’re talking to a person, for real. It freaks out first-time callers sometimes because they have to put down their book or their crochet because they were settling in for a half-hour or more of hold time.

How do people put up with that? After awhile, they don’t.



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Mark E. Jeftovic

Mark E. Jeftovic

Mark E. Jeftovic is the founder of Bombthrower and CEO of easyDNS.com, a company he co-founded in 1998 which has been operating along the lines described within these pages.