After more than 25 years of living in the same house, I recently moved from Montgomery County to Baltimore City and struggled to cope with dozens of account closings, account openings, final bills and seemingly endless calls to customer service. As I spent at least 100 hours on the phone and chat lines over a couple of months, abominable customer service almost drove me crazy with frustration and rage.
The motto, “the customer is always right,” has become “the customer is always wrong.” I don’t know if the hapless agents are merely following orders from above, or if they’ve independently invented new ways of denying responsibility. Whether formal or not, the principal rule of customer service seems to be: Get the customer off the phone by any means necessary, as fast as possible.
That’s if you can even speak to a human being. Artificial Intelligence is rapidly replacing human interactions with peremptory, automated demands for the customer’s abject obedience to arbitrary commands. One company’s A.I. “assistant” interrogates you, and if you don’t respond the way it wants, it cuts you off without mercy and orders you to call back when you’re ready to give the “right” answers. The machine practices psychological torture. It shows you who’s boss.
If you do manage to get through to a human, the agent’s main strategy is often to gaslight the customer by making you feel stupid, incompetent or unreasonable. Then the agent insists that the problem isn’t the company’s responsibility. You’d better call your internet service provider, your previous internet service provider, your bank, your electrician or the FCC. Just because you pay them to provide a service doesn’t mean they have to fix it when it goes wrong.
These interactions seem calculated to reduce the customer to a gibbering, incoherent wreck. And then, the coup de grace: The call drops, often in the middle of a sentence, after you’ve spent half-an-hour trying to explain the problem to an obtuse interlocutor whose first language is definitely not English. An agent who tries to help or solves the problem is rare indeed.
Systems often seem set up to fail. As the British say, they are not “fit for purpose.” Or maybe the purpose isn’t to provide service at all; it’s to avoid providing service, to nickel-and-dime the customer to death and to deny that the system ever makes a mistake. To err is human, but humans don’t run these systems, and machines don’t err. If nothing else gets you off the phone, the agent’s default fallback line is “but that’s our policy” — as if the policy is infallible and unchangeable, descending directly from God.
I imagine that the agents are overworked, underpaid, exploited by uncaring managers and verbally abused by enraged customers. The good ones who actually try to help seem pathetically grateful for a kind word or a simple expression of gratitude. After I spent almost an hour working with one recently, he told me I was a wonderful person with infinite patience. But I’m not, really. In self-defense, I’ve become a kind of machine myself, automatically saying “OK,” “uh-huh,” “sure” and “no problem,” as the agent struggles to control the wayward computer, which has a mind of its own. It seems determined to prove me wrong, and the agent usually doesn’t admit that anybody but the customer made any mistakes.
More than 150 years ago, as he watched the railroad tear up the countryside near Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” His buddy Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.” We have become the slaves of the machines we invented to make our lives easier. Customer service has become customer servitude. What can we do besides scream? Rise up? We have nothing to lose but our routers.
Linda Rabben (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate research professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland.