Saturday, September 11, 2010

ELIZA is alive and well and working for Comcast

I've been having problems with my internet connection and, as a result, have spent a good deal of time on chat sessions with Comcast "analysts." I was struck by how large a fraction of their side of the conversation appeared to be automated—standard phrases with no informational content, designed to appease the customer. Examples:

"Let me welcome you with genuine assurance that I will be providing you quality Comcast customer service today. Before anything else, let me extend my apologies for any inconvenience this internet issue has caused you. Still doing fine, I suppose, David?"

The last bit echoed a standard phrase along the lines of "how are you doing today." It was irrelevant to the conversation (as such phrases in ordinary conversation often are) but appeared to be an automatic opening.

Somewhat more bizarrely, when I answered that I was fine but my internet connection was not, the response was:

"I am glad to know that you are doing fine, David"

That exchange was followed, typically, by some version of:

"I understand the importance of your internet service and I do apologize if you are having problems with it right now, David. Don't worry, I'll be glad to assist you with that. Rest assured that I will do my best to remedy the situation."

One variant included an assurance that the problem would be dealt with by the end of our session, which not only was not true but could not have been believed by the analyst, assuming she noticed that this was the third or fourth time I had tried to get the problem solved.

During a break in the conversation made necessary by something the analyst was doing, I was treated to a brief ad for some additional service Comcast offered, put as if it were a further part of the conversation. When I explained that I wasn't interested in access to television, not having or wanting a TV set, the response was:

" Oh I see. That's alright, David."

A little later the same analyst who had already offered apologies and assured me of quality concast service, responded to my description of the problem and my most recent exchange with a previous analyst with:

I apologize for the inconvenience this has caused you, David. I know how important it is to use your service as expected. I am willing to help you the best way I can.

When, in irritation, I told a later analyst that: "It would be better if Comcast analysts didn't spend time asking me how my day was, but instead just dealt with the problem."

The response was:

"I'm sorry to know that, David."

Shortly followed by the exchange:

"As I understand your concern, you are having issues with your internet connection, is that right?"


David> It would also help if analysts read what I wrote and responded to it, instead of following a canned routine.

(analyst) Thank you for confirming.

Shortly followed by:

"David, I understand your need to have your internet connection up and working as expected. I know very well how important it is nowadays to have an internet connection all the time. I can certainly relate to this concern."

I'm not sure that I should have been either surprised or displeased at the nature of the conversations. Automated responses, whether programmed in silicon or carbon, save the responder time and effort and are common enough in ordinary social exchanges. The fact that analysts claimed to have access to the record of my previous sessions but showed no evidence of having absorbed the relevant information was irritating, but again might represent a reasonable compromise on their end between the quality of the service they provided and the cost in time of providing it. And some fraction of what the analysts said was actually relevant to the conversation.

But I was repeatedly reminded of ELIZA, an early computer program that created the illusion of a human being by a fairly simple set of pre-programmed responses inspired by Rogerian psychotherapy.

I suggested to one analyst that she might want to look up ELIZA. The response?

"Thank you for patiently waiting, David."


Rex Little said...

I'm pretty well used to this sort of thing from tech support people. I assume it's because they're in India, and had the canned responses drilled into them while they were learning English. I figure if their accents aren't too thick for me to understand, I'm ahead of the game.

Jon Barnard said...

Sounds more like HAL than ELIZA to me. At least, it would if you shortened your name to Dave...

Alejandro Weinstein said...

May be it was a Turing test.

J Howe said...

I've had similar responses to their 'live' chat capability. In the back of my mind I wondered if I was really conversing with a person who had a script, or if it was some sort of 'smart' automated response application. Very irritating, particularly if it is a real person doing the responding.

Anonymous said...

Let me recount how Comcast support has changed since I began using the service (about 10 years ago). Initially you could call a local phone number, which would connect you to a person who was intimately familiar with your local cable system and its problems. It was a low tech, "inefficient" system - and it worked wonderfully.

More recently, all calls go to a remote call center (in Canada, last time I called anyway), where the person answering the phone doesn't know anything that isn't provided by his computer terminal, and has no authority to act. The new "optimized" system blocks information flow between customers and cable technicians, so problems take days to resolve instead of hours.

Genius said...

I worked in customer support for a while (I'm in Israel). I started at about the same level as the people answering phones at Comcast, though everything I did was by email. In my company, customer support reps could be fired for deviating from the script. Eventually I moved up to the point where the manager discovered I hadn't been using the script for months, and I was still able to keep my job.

Supervisors and managers in these call centers don't have scripts. They exist to do the thinking that reps aren't allowed to do. So when you call, just insist on speaking to a manager and you should be able to have a normal human-to-human conversation.

Anonymous said...

David, I work for said company. There is a very T-1000 (from Terminator 2) like nature to the corporate structure. What starts off as corporate policy breaks apart and into smaller divisions and then sub regions and then eventually back into corporate policy.

When I first started, I worked in customer service. I was able to carry the call with my own methods (which were very charismatic, albeit sometimes odd).

The way higher echelons view my individual propensity to please the customer with my charisma and ability to solve problems was to acknowledge that the customer experience was not homogeneous. Sure a random could speak to me that time. But the next random would speak to someone else. That someone else may word things differently. They may be not as apt to diffuse a hostile customer, etc.

So individual regional mandates turn into corporate pushes for homogenization. That leads to poorer performance on customer scorecards, which turns back into regional mandates and then eventually back to corporate pushes for homogenization.

Since said company has to balance the need to have phones answered (in PA for example, local jurisdictions place requirements on the call centers to have a large percentage, like 90%, of incoming calls answered within a minute or face penalty) and hiring competent, charismatic staff.

What typically happens is that, during periods of regionalism, good regions have a higher percentage of competency. During periods of corporatism, they instill the cookie cutter, homogenization techniques you observe, lose the talent (who wants to be a drone?) and just go downhill from there. This forces them to re-regionalize.

I've worked there for over 5 years and have seen it happen three times.

Kevin Carson said...

You might be interested to know that the big thing in the healthcare industry today is the Studer Group Kool-Aid, which scripts face-to-face interactions between patients and nursing staff in just the manner you describe.

Ten years ago, the Cluetrain Manifesto said that companies would build customer relationships by eschewing the language of the canned brochure and mission statement, and the "your call is very important to us" recording, and letting employees speak with their own authentic voices. By speaking frankly with customers and acting as customer advocates against the company when necessary, employees paradoxically increased the company's credibility.

The Studer Group is all about canned routines and scripts:

"FOR YOUR SAFETY, I'm raising the bed rail."
"FOR YOUR COMFORT, I'm giving you another blanket."
"FOR YOUR PRIVACY, I'm pulling the curtain."

Another big thing for them is what they call "managing up": using the right positive, scripted language to manipulate the patient into giving the correct responses on their employee satisfaction survey. For example:

"This is Dr. Scheissenfresser. He's ONE OF OUR BEST DOCTORS. ALL THE PATIENTS LOVE HIM."

All the patients are supposed to hear, under Studerism, is every single staff member speaking with one voice -- like the Borg Collective.

A lot of nurses think "managing up" is unethical as hell. It violates the traditional bond of trust between nurse and patient, and compromises the professional independence the nurse needs to be a patient advocate when necessary, instead turning nurses into paid shills.

lelnet said...

My guess would be that "Live Chat" is being outsourced to someplace where the typical level of proficiency in idiomatic American English is not particularly high. (Say what you will about call centers in Canada for services in the US -- or for that matter, call centers in Nebraska for services in least they can understand you and you can understand them.) Getting phone support that's competent to solve real non-trivial problems is hard, but you're much less likely to get the appearance of a literally soulless drone if you call than if you use the web site chat system.

Some companies are more open to escalating to real troubleshooters than others. My experience with Comcast mirrors yours. At Bank of America, on the other hand, the time from "here's my problem, can you solve it?" to "no I can't, but I'll get someone online who can" is (in my personal and direct experience) measured in seconds. No fussing around with "let's run through my whole litany of stuff that obviously doesn't apply to this situation before I hand you to the right person".

I've never spent less than half an hour convincing Comcast that my problem is a head-end issue, and can't be fixed by rebooting my computer and modem over and over again...even when their own automated system has noticed that my whole neighborhood is flooding them with calls. The reps on the phone don't give _good_ responses to what I say, but they're obviously not just following a robotically-rigid script.

PJK said...

I just ended a similar scenario with Microsoft. I couldn't download an update--a first for my system. A series of emails ensued with canned responses like those given here. My take was the same as Rex Little's--these were foreigner's responding. One responder signed himself "Tiger."

Anonymous said...

Where do they get off calling you by your first name?

Anonymous said...

Rather than attributing this to foreign-language challenges, I think it's a practical matter of having the greatest efficiency in dealing with the volume of calls/IMs. One CSR can juggle many more calls or messages if s/he has a scripted response at the ready or even better, a macro with the message to send to the customer. Follow the money. I personally find these canned responses infuriating. The comment about the medical care communication scripting I find especially frightening.

Anonymous said...

I would be inclined to agree with anonymous above me here. I have worked as a chat consultant for another company, and they were trying to make us take 2 or 3 chats at a time, while only having access to one instance of the information system. That leads to a lot of uninformative talk that doesn't mean anything by the consultant, simply because they are having such a hard time helping two or three different people with totally different problems at once.

The reason they do it is because chats take longer than calls normally, so the management types look at the numbers and say "these chat consultants aren't helping as many people as the phone guys, either make them help more people or we might as well stick them on the phones".

We also had a large number of standard responses we were supposed to use because they had been legalled, and they were quicker. It left more of your brain power for holding three different problems rather than typing. Needless to say the quality of help wasn't great.

Anonymous said...

This reminded me of the infuriating "Verizon math fail". I think David may have gotten off easy.