Home > musing > Automated call centers and superorganisms

Automated call centers and superorganisms

August 31, 2012

Once upon a time there were people who worked in the insurance office and you could talk to them on the phone or even in person (annoying emphasis intentional).

Now everything is online and you need to call an automated call center to try to conduct business if there’s been an accident or they made a mistake or if you have a question which isn’t “how much do I owe the insurance company?”.

Recently my friend Becky got stuck in the penetralia of an automated call center and she likened the experience to the life of an ant and specifically to the “superorganism hypothesis” of myrmecologist E. O. Wilson (BTW, who here doesn’t love the word “myrmecologist”?). Her description:

Whether or not this is an accurate representation of their inner state, ants have long been described as having an automaton’s machine-like nature, one in which individual identity is subsumed under the totalitarian will of the collective in Borg-like, Communist wetdream fashion.

That’s how I feel when I’m lost in the labyrinthine bowels of automated customer service hell. I’m part of a network that works profitably at the superorganism level, but doesn’t serve the interests of the individual in the slightest, nor cares to nor purports to, driven as it is by the spare logic of collective efficiency.

Question: what is less human than the rigid caste societies of Army ants marching hollowly and inexorably on their prey, driven by the dictates of their genes?

Answer: only the hollowed-out computer-generated voice of the quasi-British phone operator who demands that you enter your social security number over and over again as an exercise in surrendering your will to a corporation whose power role in the financial arrangement is made ever more apparent to both parties by the dawning impossibility of ever speaking to a human at the end of the interminable and ultimately futile phone call.

Powerful analogy; I’ve tended to use the herded cows analogy myself. To entertain myself in the painful waits, I often emit audible “moos” to emphasize the forced passivity I object to. It sometimes backfires and interprets my sounds as a menu choice, though, so I’m thinking of going with the ants, who I don’t think make much noise.

A few thoughts:

  • If you know you need to talk to a person eventually and that there’s no point going through all the stages, sometimes just dialing “0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0″ a bunch of times will put you straight through. I usually try this straight away the first time I call. Sometimes it works, sometimes it totally fails and I have to call back. Worth a try.
  • I wonder how efficient these call centers really are. I have a theory that people simply give up and pay (or default on) their incorrect bills rather than having to deal with this irredeemably opaque system.
  • I also wonder what the built-up learned passivity does to us as a society. Having worked as a customer support person myself, I know that there are probably nice people at the other end of the system, and if I could only get through to them, which is a big if, they’d be super informed and helpful. But most people probably don’t think of it that way.
Categories: musing
  1. mathematrucker
    August 31, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Yes “myrmecologist” is a great word. But what about “penetralia”? That’s gotta qualify for the Beavis and Butt-head chuckle: “he-he-he-he…she wrote ‘penetralia’…he-he-he-he”. Also rhymes really well with “Centralia”, the small town halfway between Seattle and Portland.

    My favorite though? “Quasi-British”!

    • Scott Carnahan
      September 1, 2012 at 6:45 pm

      I think Centralia, Pennsylvania is the Centralia with the more interesting story, since the town has been on fire for the last 50 years. Wikipedia says that it is likely to continue burning for another 250 years or so.

  2. August 31, 2012 at 8:57 am

    Thanks, I was hoping someone would like penetralia :)

    Cathy

  3. sheenyglass
    August 31, 2012 at 11:03 am

    “I wonder how efficient these call centers really are. I have a theory that people simply give up and pay (or default on) their incorrect bills rather than having to deal with this irredeemably opaque system.”

    I’ve always assumed that was part of the rationale for using them. To put it in a charitable way, it might be intended to be a sorting mechanism to encourage people to only call with a significant problem. I can understand why they would want to set up automated responses for frequently requested pieces of basic information, but the byzantine labyrinth of numbers usually extends into actual problem solving.

    Also lifehacker had a post a few months ago about dealing with these lines generally, which also included some links to sites that help you go straight to a human (for example http://gethuman.com/)
    Post at – http://lifehacker.com/5899839/use-these-customer-service-shortcuts-to-stop-wasting-time-waiting-for-help

  4. JSE
    August 31, 2012 at 11:41 am

    “I wonder how efficient these call centers really are. I have a theory that people simply give up and pay (or default on) their incorrect bills rather than having to deal with this irredeemably opaque system.”

    If that’s the case, then the call centers are quite efficient indeed for the companies that use them.

    • August 31, 2012 at 11:45 am

      Depending on the ratio of defaults to payments. Also it doesn’t encourage firm loyalty.

      • Michael Thaddeus
        September 3, 2012 at 12:05 pm

        That’s why the worst offenders are companies you have to be loyal to, like the phone company, or insurance companies.

  5. dp
    September 1, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    If you do care about quality, you need to subsidize a fair amount of unquality. Not many will invest in something that people will not buy if it finally results to be a crap.

  6. Michael Thaddeus
    September 3, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    There’s actually a website listing phone numbers that are supposed to connect you directly with customer service at many companies: http://gethuman.com

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