Self Service, No Service, or Wrong Service? by
(194 Stories)

Prompted By Customer Service

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While I occasionally (OK, more often than that), long for the days of interacting with a live person, some things are now best done online or by phone menus by serving yourself–provided that what you want to do fits how the website or phone system has been set up. Should you get through to a live person, it can be irritating dealing with someone poorly trained or with an incomprehensible accent. However, the people on the phone can be just as powerless to help you as you are to help yourself when they are stuck with inflexible scripts and software.

At that point I press 0 and get a voicemail saying the mailbox is full. Click ...

Therein lies the problem with customer service today. Technology, even systems that claim to be artificially intelligent, isn’t intelligent enough. Tech tries to make things simple, but if you already have a problem, you want service because it isn’t simple, right? Take phone menus as an example.

“Please select what you are calling about,” says the automated voice system. “Select 1 for x, 2 for y, 3 for z … 23 for aa …  or 38 for other.”

“Hmm,” I think, “What I’m calling about is a combination of y and z. Do I select y or z? Maybe I should go with other. Maybe I should try 0 for a person.” At that point I press 0 and get a voicemail saying the mailbox is full. Click …

Chatbots are no better. They always want to chat with me and seem so friendly, until I enter my question. The response? “Sorry, I don’t understand. Can you make your question simpler?” I am tempted to respond, “No, I can’t. My problem is difficult. If it were simpler, I would have solved it myself.”

If I am fortunate enough to get a real person on the phone, I’ve been impressed by their efforts to help. After explaining the situation, I hear the clickety clack of their computer keys as they attempt a solution. My favorite example happened this year, when I kept trying to interact with my Medicare Part D prescription drug plan’s website, which was abysmally organized, would not retain my entries, and was having trouble communicating with my doctors for mail order prescriptions. At the end of a long troubleshooting session, the person gave up and said, “Just refill your prescriptions at the local pharmacy. I can’t get this to work properly.” I applaud her honesty.

Sometimes the customer service person tries to be helpful and ends up making more work for me. This happened to me recently when I received a call from the state of California’s health department. After spending a couple of minutes figuring out that the call wasn’t a scam, I agreed to let the person help me make an appointment to get a COVID booster really close to where I live.

This was something I easily could have done online myself, but the state was calling all “seniors” to be helpful. After answering a few questions, I commented to the person, “You know, this is complicated because I work, I’m a caregiver, and I get sick for two days after the shot, so timing is everything.”

“Don’t worry,” he replied, “our system is really smart, so once we get the appointment set up, and you get the email, you can go online and change the date and time.” “OK, let’s see how this works,” I thought.

It worked–not. What I was afraid of happened, because it’s happened before. The state used a very smart geographical search engine to find the location closest to my house, a Walgreen’s in Milpitas, and gave me an appointment at 3:20 PM midweek. That store is the closest in mileage, as the crow flies. Unfortunately, to get there from my house, one has to drive on one of the busiest freeways in the Bay Area, in the afternoon commute, which starts here at 2 PM, where there is road construction and where new FasTrak lanes have been installed. I would need to plan on a 45-minute drive.

I went online to the Walgreen’s site to find a new date, time, and location, and while I could change the date and time, I couldn’t change the location. So, I ended up canceling the appointment, going online to the CVS website, and getting an appointment at a store farther from my house in mileage, but with a 10-minute drive time–at a date and time that I wanted.

The helpful customer service person, who was doing what he thought was right, ended up costing me extra time and effort. I’m sure we all have these stories, but I must acknowledge the people for trying. Our technology will just have to get smarter so that we will get real service.



Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Tis indeed frustrating trying to negotiate the tech world – especially for us who aren’t as scientifically-minded as you Marian. But getting a real person is certainly better – even if they’re not always able to solve the problem,

    And since Covid with so many folks working from home, it’s fun to hear dogs barking and babies crying in the background when the person on the phone is trying to sound professional!

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    Your stories remind me how many pitfalls there are in AI and technical solutions as soon as something out of the “ordinary” arises. Which is exactly when we need the personal involvement, if nothing else to know we are not looking for a solution alone. But we do have to struggle to find it, especially someone who can really help.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    The situation you describe would make me want to tear my hair out, Mare. So frustrating! And you were talking to a human, sort of, even though he was guiding you through machine prompts. AI has distinct limitations.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    A terrific analysis of technology, and what it can and cannot do, Marian. Like you, I am not a technophobe at all — and sometimes it works better than humans, especially than poorly trained humans. But not always. Plus, you nicely describe some of the same frustrating problems I have encountered. And, undoubtedly, many others.

    And, I remind myself, if there are problems, they are ultimately human problems, since (presumably) the humans are responsible for design errors if a technology system is faulty.

    That said, often I just want my damn problem solved!

    • Marian says:

      It’s been my experience that often techies can’t imagine that problems, especially those out of the ordinary, would occur. And now that companies don’t want to invest in people, it only makes it harder on the customer. Wish we could solve that problem, John!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    I feel your pain, Marian. Using online help, while it promises to be faster, is usually less helpful than getting a real person, provided I can understand them. It is particularly irksome to tell my whole tale of woe to someone who then decides I need a higher level person. I then have to repeat everything to person B and sometimes person C. Such is customer service these days.

  6. Suzy says:

    Mare, you do a great job of describing all the pitfalls of customer service on the phone and online. Every once in a while I get someone who actually understands my problem and is able to solve it for me, and that is so amazing – certainly not the norm. But I guess we are stuck with the system we have until someone invents something better.

  7. Risa Nye says:

    Marian, as much as I hate those “push this for that” menu options, I’ve noticed that when I get an actual person on the line they are overly polite and helpful. I guess they figured out that the honey/vinegar equation works with customer service too. I’m always a little surprised, but thankful all the same.

  8. Susan Bennet says:

    True scenarios of today’s customer service, Marian. And what is so impressive to me is that you never lost your cool. I’m getting the impression more and more that, on both sides of the customer service equation, we’re understanding each other’s pain. I make it a point to thank reps now, profusely.

    • Marian says:

      Very true, Susan. The last time I had a major unresolved issue with my newspaper delivery, I needed to speak to a supervisor, but I emphasized to the lower-level person at the start that none of this was her fault (which was true, because she wasn’t the person whom I spoke to the first couple of times). I did get a supervisor and the problem was solved.

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