The Roboticization of Customer Service

(Ran into this 2006 post while searching for an old Photon Courier post, and realized it had never been posted on Chicago Boyz.  It is unfortunately still quite relevant.)

Almost every day, one encounters some business that is attempting to micromanage the interactions between its employees and its customers.

At lunchtime a couple of weeks ago, I was in the mood for bacon & eggs, so I went to a restaurant (part of a local chain) that has breakfast items all day long. The interaction went something like this:

Waitperson: Welcome to Snarfers-by-the-Lake, my name is Linda, I’ll be your server today.

Me: Hi, Linda. I’m kind of in a breakfast mood, so I think I’ll have the bacon & eggs.

WP (looks confused, as if she’d never heard of this dish before): Bacon & eggs? I don’t think…Oh, that would be our “eggs any style.”

Me: OK…style I like ’em is over medium, with the bacon pretty crisp.

WP: Over medium…and would you like bacon or sausage with that?

Me: Bacon…pretty crisp.

WP: And our soup today is cream of broccoli.

Me: Soup with breakfast? That would be something different!

WP: I know it’s silly, but they make me say it.

I know it’s silly, but they make me say it. In how many consumer-oriented businesses could employees say the same thing?

Also a couple of weeks ago, I had to call my local telco, always a dreaded experience. After I had finally gotten through the levels of the voice response menu and got a person, it was:

CS Agent: Thank you for calling, how may I provide you with exceptional service today?

How may I provide you with exceptional service today? You can bet the agent didn’t come up with this phrase all by herself. And I doubt if her management came up with it all on their own. No, I detect the fine hand of a consultant here–maybe the pointy-haired guy in Dilbert went into the CS consulting business.

What imaginable purpose is there in requiring this phrase to be used in thousands of calls per day? Customers will decide if the service is “exceptional” or not based on what gets done or not done. You’re not going to convince them by using the word. And from the standpoint of the CS agents, this kind of thing can only breed cynicism.


Many retail and customer-service operations seem to have recently discovered the work-study methods of Frederick Winslow Taylor, 80 years or so after they started to be used in manufacturing, and to be applying them without much thought. People–and customer service situations–are much more variable than are semifinished materials in a factory environment. And, even in manufacturing there has been some retreat from strict Taylorism.

Increasingly, customer service interactions are reminiscent of an automated machine tool doing something without regard for the context–say, a CNC milling machine going through an elaborate cutting pattern, totally oblivious to the fact that no workpiece is present, and the only thing it is cutting is air.

I think it was Peter Drucker who quoted an old business saying: “You can’t just hire a hand. Its owner always comes with it.” Too many people running customer service operations seem to think that they can just hire a voice, without mind or heart attached.

At the same time customer service operations are micromanaging verbal interactions, they often undermanage the flow of work. In call centers, it’s often pretty obvious that no one has systematically thought through the question: What are the most common kinds of customer issues, and how might each of them best be handled? To use a manufacturing analogy again, it’s like an auto assembly plant that conducts elaborate time-and-motion studies to determine the best way to tighten a particular bolt–but never notices that the seats are being put on before the bolt in question…which is underneath one of the seats…and hence that seat has to be taken back out again before the bolt can go in.

There are big opportunities, in the form of revenue, customer loyalty, and profit, for those businesses that choose to apply serious thought to their customer service processes, rather than just going with whatever is trendy at the moment.

There’s plenty of mindless customer-service activity going on in government and in K-12 education, too–probably much worse than in business, on the average, but arguably harder to fix due to things like interest-group politics and Civil Service rules. Business should be providing a good example, not an increasingly awful one.

For a positive customer service story, see this, from Laurence Haughton.

6/16/14: See my related posts Mindless Verbal Taylorism and The Age of Blather.

32 thoughts on “The Roboticization of Customer Service”

  1. A major figure in Taylorism was Frank Gilbreth who was actually more interested in processes. He began with bricklaying and was quoted to me in my training as a great example for training in surgery. He was most interested in how to improve quality and reduce the steps in procedures. The most basic element of a process is called a therblig the reverse of Gilbreth’s name. He was also the father in the story and movie “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

    Customer service is subject to the study of both wings of quality improvement. Kaiser hospitals, for example, uses this and counts the number of rings of a telephone in the outpatient department before it is answered. Of course, I learned long ago as an engineer that you cope with such rules by not answering after the third ring so the caller assumes a wrong number.

    I have a mild personal experience this month. I have an AT&T cell phone. Where I live the service is poor so I got a land line phone. AT&T would not let me combine the accounts into one bill. I get the cellphone bill each month and pay it but the land line phone bill never comes. I got an e-mail on June 7 that the Bill was “ready.” a few days later I began to get dunning calls by robot. I could not answer and explain that I had not got a bill yet. I’ve only had the land line service about 3 months.

    This reminds me of an experience with the LA Times. I quit years ago but decided a few years ago to subscribe only in football season to follow my team the USC Trojans. Before the paper was delivered the first time, I was getting notices that my bill hadn’t been paid. It was like 99 cents a month. I cancelled before the first paper arrived.

  2. MikeK:

    Ah, newspapers. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is a barrel of laughs. Every couple of weeks the Sunday paper would not arrive. (And copies in the store do not have a TV guide. How nice.) I would call customer service during the hours printed in the paper and would get a recording “the office is closed. please call during regular business hours.” So either they cannot be bothered to print honest hours or their staff cannot be bothered to answer the phone.

  3. “How may I provide you with exceptional service today?”

    That sort of thing is just annoying. Does management have no clue? Do the consultants not care? Or are they training us to be ever more docile?

    More annoying: Walgreens pharmacy forcing me to listen to an advertisement before giving the “press 1 for…” menu every effing time I call.

  4. Marketing departments are a pain, but don’t forget lawyers:

    Chase Card Service’s pay-by-phone voice-mail menu used to be quick and simple to use. But now it is very slow: After making your payment choice, you have to listen to a long legal boilerplate reciting in excruciating detail the options you just chose.

  5. Pst314….much as I hate to defend lawyers…unless the company is very unusual, they aren’t making the decision. They are identifying the risks of various alternatives (“If you don’t play back the customer’s choice and he winds up paying more than he thought he was, and gets in trouble with his bank, and files a XYZ complaint against us, he’ll probably win and it could cost us $Q”)….almost certainly, the executive in charge of Chase Card Services could choose to accept this risk in the name of better customer service and retention, unless actual violation of statute or specific regulation is involved. What probably happened in this case, though, and in many other ones, is that the lawyers identified a set of prospective risks to some mid-level manager in Customer Service…maybe a guy in charge of voice-mail user interfaces…and he just chose the (apparently) low-risk path without questioning or escalating it.

  6. Reminds of the scene in “Five Easy Pieces” where Jack Nicholson is trying to order toast in a roadside dinner.

    In my MBA program I took a class on marketing of services. The accent was on the front line employee, the one that was the face of one’s company. Rather than hiring good employees, one the customer would appreciate (and cost more), the trend seems to be hire the cheapest and give them a rigorous script to follow.

    I too get VERY tired of questions and pitches that are nonsensical in the context of the interaction. If A precludes C, why ask about C when I’ve already ordered A?

  7. Another annoying robo-request at any retail outlet now: Would you like to donate $1 to (insert charity here)?? The obvious ploy, ‘As long as you’ve got your wallet out and are reaching in for cash, and you’re here in a public place and other people are listening to this exchange, you’re going to be too embarrassed to say no, correct?’

    Lately, I’ve taken to complaining to people when they do that. I ask, “How would feel if every customer who came in said, ‘As long as you’ve got that cash register open, would you like to donate to my favorite charity?’ How would you like to deal with that all day? And another thing, people’s charitable contributions are personal decisions. I came in here to do a business transaction. That’s a totally inappropriate question to ask your customers.”

    I usually get a stammering explanation that they’re required to ask that, but they agree it’s unfair to people and inappropriate. Last time, I took it to the service desk and made the complaint there. Again agreement, but they are required to do it. I told them to pass on to their management my comments.

    Do they not care that they’re irritating the hell out of their customers with this stuff?

  8. Here’s an observation that I made some time ago: The better the economy, the poorer the service at low-end worker places like fast-food outlets.

    The reason is simple. They hire at the bottom of the employment ladder. When times are tough, they can pick better workers and keep them longer. As the economy improves, they have to reach further down, and have trouble keeping their workers long enough for them to get experience.

    The big franchise outfits try to solve that problem by using geniuses to design systems to be run by idiots — a description I first ran into in “The Caine Mutiny”.

    So you get responses that seem “robotic”, especially from the newer workers. (And if they would let you study, for example, their cash registers, you would see some very clever designs.)

    For years, these design examples interested me enough so that I would use those programmed questions and answers to try to work out the thinking of the the system designers. (Why, for example, do checkers at supermarkets ask you if you found everything you were looking for?)

    In the last few years, with the lousy economy, I have taken to subverting their systems slightly, by offering a joke or a funny story at the end of the transaction — assuming, of course, that I am not making any other customer wait. It can be something of a challenge to guess which story or joke will work best, with someone you have barely met, but that challenge is fun, too.

  9. “How may I provide you with exceptional service today?”
    You were obviously dealing with a Lake Webegon based service, where everyone is of course above average.
    Or, at least the remaining employees will be…

  10. David Foster “Pst314…much as I hate to defend lawyers…”

    Yes, I can’t argue with your there, but I couldn’t resist the chance to rag on lawyers and didn’t want to take the time to compose a more complex comment. I would say that at least as much blame accrues to the customers who blame others for their own mistakes, the juries who award them damages even though they are obviously to blame for their own troubles, and the managers who won’t fight back against this, the educators and intellectuals and “community activists” who encourage all sorts of parasitism.

  11. Jim Miller “The better the economy, the poorer the service at low-end worker places like fast-food outlets.”

    I won’t argue with you! And yet there is another factor: The low end gets lower every year, due to cultural decay.

  12. There is a definite feedback loop between job design and employee quality. Highly scripted jobs will drive away self-motivated and thoughtful employees; the ones you can get, you can get cheap, but expect a lot of turnover. Design the job for a little more employee autonomy, and pay more, and you will get a higher quality of employees, in whom you can afford to make more of a training investment because they will be mostly sticking around longer.

    An interesting case is that of the supermarket cashier…the grocery biz is notoriously low-margin, but major supermarket chains pay far above minimum wage. Presumably, the cost of someone who has to fumble around every time to locate the UPC code for Plantains (for example) will exceed the amount of savings you can get on his salary vis-a-vis someone sharper.

  13. The Roboticization of Customer Service

    Years ago I ordered a hamburger at a McDonalds. After I ordered the hamburger, the clerk added an undoubtedly scripted question, “With fries?” I replied, “If I wanted fries, I would have requested them.” The hamburger arrived with fries: the clerk, whose accent showed that English was her second language, hadn’t understood my response.

    I complained to the manager, who took the fries off my order.

    Though it took years, McDonalds is finally doing something about its English language-challenged employees. It has implemented an online management training program which includes instruction in English as a Second Language. Call it fast-food English.

    My brother was involved in designing and implementing a bank’s automated phone messaging system. I told my brother that when he dies, St. Peter will hold that against him.

  14. “The accent was on the front line employee, the one that was the face of one’s company. Rather than hiring good employees, one the customer would appreciate (and cost more), the trend seems to be hire the cheapest and give them a rigorous script to follow.”

    An anecdote from medical practice in days gone by. As surgeons, we paid considerable attention to our front office person who answers the phone and greets patients in the office. Every call and every new patient could represent a $5,000 surgery. My front office “girl,” she was a women of 35 but they all referred to themselves as girls, was very warm and friendly. My business guy (outside consultant) once said “She gives very good phone.” The busiest pediatric practice in the area periodically fired all its employees in the front office once they had gotten to a salary level that was “too high.” The doctors didn’t care how good they were. It started back with entry level people. The margins in pediatrics are slim and cost is everything. They don’t care about “customer service” because it is all volume.

    Now, of course, all medical practice is slim margin and surgical practices are being bought by the hospital and integrated with the already owned medical groups. Patients will have no choice and good customer service will go away. I’m working on a long post on my own blog about what is happening to my former hospital, once probably the best in Orange County. My former surgical group declined an offer “they couldn’t refuse” from the hospital so now the hospital has taken away the trauma center contract and is importing a whole new surgical group, that no one knows, from northern California. The medical groups are already owned by the hospital and will no doubt be obliged to refer to the new mystery group. Ditto for the ER. The surgical group is shifting their practice to the other large hospital in the area which has seen most of its surgical group retire.

    I wonder about a five person surgical group that would be willing to move en masse to a new community. They must have been in some distress. I guess we will learn why after July 1.

  15. Also: a strategy of hiring low-quality employees will generally require not only high routinization of the work, but also high division of labor. This in turn results in the need for frequent handoffs of the customer or prospect.

  16. At a bank that was foolish enough to employe me we had a phrase, Bad service isn’t a bargain no matter how low the price.

  17. Gringo’s McDonalds story reminds me why I am glad the idiots in Seattle voted for the insane minimum wage. They are just going to end up automating everything and fast food places wont have any minimum wage employes at all. Much better service and advancement in automation technology at the same time.

  18. My pet peeve: calling into the customer service line of some business where I have an established account, being prompted by the automated attendant to enter my phone or account number “for better service”, … and then … when the human finally does come on the line, I have to play 20 Questions with them as if they didn’t already have all that information! What the heck? Why am I asked to enter my acct # if it doesn’t call up all that info on the screen of the person who’s handling my call???

  19. All the world’s a stage, and customer service reps are merely players on it.

    Some read scripts that are over written, others are hams who overplay their lines.

  20. “Lately, I’ve taken to complaining to people when they do that. I ask, “How would feel if every customer who came in said, ‘As long as you’ve got that cash register open, would you like to donate to my favorite charity?’ How would you like to deal with that all day? And another thing, people’s charitable contributions are personal decisions. I came in here to do a business transaction. That’s a totally inappropriate question to ask your customers.””

    Mike, I really like that approach and will seek to emulate it. I find that corporate selected charities are seldom (never?) ones I give to based on financial overhead and lack of accountability/transparency of their efforts. My list is small, targeted and generally local. I think these counter collection efforts are PR driven.


  21. Kirk Parker:

    On a recent ER visit at the PC doc’s hospital, the ER was unable to access the PC doc’s records. Separate databases. Then after the ER visit we had to fax the ER report to the PC doc’s ofc so that he could have access to it. The hospital runs the ER, and other docs who work for or are affiliated with that hospital have access to the PC doc’s records, but the ER does not.

  22. Kirk Parker,

    We share a pet peeve. My favorite customer service story was when I finally broke down, some years ago now, and decided to get cable TV into my home. I called the local cable TV outfit. Naturally they asked a series of questions- name, phone #, address, do you own, etc. Then they passed me off to the next person who proceeded to ask me the same questions. I mentioned that I had just answered all those questions but answered them again. Then came person #3 with the same questions. I explained I’d answered them twice and wasn’t answering them again and she should talk to whomever passed me along for that information.

    She did. Then she came back and asked how long I’d lived at the address. At the time is was about 10 years.

    CS: “What’s the apartment #?”
    Me: “It is not an apartment. It is a single family home.”
    CS: “Are you sure?”
    Me: “yes, absolutely certain.”
    CS: “There’s no such address.”
    Me: “Well, yes there is and I’m standing inside of it using a telephone and electricity billed to this address.”
    CS: “are you sure?”

    It took a while for me to finally understand that this house had never had cable and, therefore, the address was not in there database. It took another little while to ‘splain that to the lass and get her to send me to the next person in the chain.

    me: “I’m not answering those questions again. The young lady who sent me over has that information. So do all the other people in your company who I’ve talked to so far. Do you people use computers?”

    CS: “Of course.”
    me: “Not well.”

    Then I learned it would take “7 – 10 business days” to get the address added to the database.

    me: “Are you using punched cards shipped offshore by carrier pigeon?”

  23. “if it doesn’t call up all that info on the screen of the person who’s handling my call???”

    The broadband to India is sometimes slow.

    “The hospital runs the ER, and other docs who work for or are affiliated with that hospital have access to the PC doc’s records, but the ER does not.

    The EMR systems at Cedars-Sinai are not compatible with UCLA where most of the attendings are on faculty. The USC university hospital uses a different EMR system than LA County although both are USC teaching hospitals. The ER may be a contract with a doctor group that uses their own EMR.

    I just picked up my mail and had a returned letter to the doctor in Tucson who cared for me when I had my stroke in 2011. I was asking for records. I had looked up his web site and took the address from that. No forwarding of a doctor’s mail ? Glad I retired.

  24. “What ever happened to HCFA data transfer standards?”

    I’m out of date. Would those be for billing purposes ? EMRs are notorious for slow, non-intuitive interfaces and incompatibility. I was an enthusiast 30 years ago but my recent, very limited experience is not good. For example, one EMR platform requires a non-deletable diagnosis before any data entry. This supposed to be medicine, not transcription. Now, the hospitals seem to be hiring “scribes” to enter data. These are barely trained non-clinical folks who act as data entry clerks.

  25. Oh, sorry–I mean HL7 ( not HCFA/CMS.

    HL7 is all about having common data-interchange formats between disparate medical systems. I was just starting to look at this back at the end of my consulting stint at Blood Bank Computer Systems ( as somebody — Red Cross, probably — was pushing to start using that for all data coming to/from “foreign” systems. Sure, it’s a lot of work to get this set up, but you only have to do it once, and then you can interchange data with anybody else who also speaks HL7.

  26. So I’m not talking about the User Interfaces which I understand are mostly cumbersome and ghastly — but about the surprising inability of those departmental or group systems, however badly designed for the poor slobs… oops, I mean docs … who are condemned to use them, to at least send that data to other neighboring systems.

  27. CS Agent: Thank you for calling, how may I provide you with exceptional service today?

    Means “You came here expecting the very best service. How can I make you agree, today, that my service is an exception to that rule?”

    Obviously management is unlettered. The proper statement is: Thank you for calling, how may I provide you with unexceptionable service today?

  28. “Sure, it’s a lot of work to get this set up, but you only have to do it once, and then you can interchange data with anybody else who also speaks HL7.”

    When I was going to ASIM meetings 30 years ago, this was a big topic of discussion. Isn’t it interesting that it still doesn’t work ? I suspect that hospitals have a hand in this. “If you are on our staff, you will have access to all our data. Not on our staff and part of our wholly owned medical group ? Oh, that’s different.” I don’t think it is an accident. If I teach again this year (Still haven’t decided) , we may have more time to see how the EMR for USC hospital and County hospital work and if they interface. It has taken two years to get permission to get into the university (Keck) hospital system which seems to have a much better user interface. I finally had to write a letter to the Dean, who called me and told me that what I was saying was impossible. A few weeks later we were finally able to get in. Before that, the students could not see the charts of their patients. I don’t know yet if data is exchanged between County and the Keck hospital. The only common patients would be transplants, I think.

  29. If you stay at a hotel your bill is inclusive. You don’t get separate bills from the hotel for the room, from the cleaning people for maid service, from the fitness center, for room service meals, etc. You are responsible for all charges and when you check out of the hotel you pay one bill and leave.

    If you get treated at a hospital you get separate bills from the hospital, from the individual doctors, therapists, etc. You don’t get billed until later, after the separate service providers have submitted their bills to your insurance company. You cannot even find out what your total cost will be until long after you get out of the hospital.

    I suspect that if patients were directly responsible for paying their medical bills, then not only would hospitals give patients clear, inclusive bills covering all of the doctors and services involved, but issues such as noncommunicating databases that waste the time of patients and their doctors would be fixed.

Comments are closed.