The folly of virtual assistants

When I went online to track a UPS package, a virtual assistant popped up with this message, “Hello, I’m the UPS Virtual Assistant. I see you tracked a package. Let me know how I can help. By chatting, you consent to the chats being recorded, used, and shared by us and our service providers according to our Privacy Notice and Cookies Policy.”

Virtual assistants are the latest excuse for avoiding any human contact between a company and their customers. They are a “personless” version of live chat that has appeared on some sites, that are also rarely of much help. Live chat is when a chat box pops up, usually with a person’s name, asking if they can help.

When I was browsing an automobile dealer’s website several months back, a live chat window popped up and I was asked if I needed any help. I usually ignore it, but on this occasion I asked a question about a certain car model’s availability, and the agent asked me for my name and number and said someone from the dealer would call back. In other words, they weren’t there to help provide information, just to capture names and contact info.

Companies that use them are getting sold a bill of good about providing 24-hour contact for their customers. They are manned by people not even associated with the dealer; they’re just an outsourced service that covers hundreds of companies with a few operators and a script.

As bad as these live chat assistants are, virtual ones are even worse. With no humans, you rarely get useful help. Many times you get a response “I don’t understand” or something that makes no sense.

In the case of the UPS virtual assistant, I wanted to ask about a package due to be delivered that day, but whose tracking information suddenly disappeared from the web. No matter how I phrased the question, it couldn’t understand me, so I just gave up. And isn’t demeaning being forced to talk to a bot that can’t understand you?

The problem with virtual assistants is they can only deal with the routine, common questions, and rarely can deal with the exceptions or unusual issues. And it’s usually the special cases that lead a customer to try to reach a live person. In the case of UPS there is no way to reach a live person anymore.

I’m not sure what it is about companies that block us from any human-to-human contact. It’s being done just to save money, but it’s also an opportunity for a company to serve their customers and improve customer satisfaction. While we may dislike our cellular carrier or airline, it’s still possible to reach a live person, it’s often very helpful, and we dislike them less for it. It often helps us fix a problem or provide a service, and usually makes us grateful for their help.

Some of the best human interactions I’ve had recently include Chase credit card services, United Airlines, Verizon, Amazon, and Apple. In each case it was possible to reach a real live and knowledgeable person and get a problem solved. There would’ve been no easy way to do the same online. Some of the worst experiences I’ve had include UPS, Fedex, Google, and Southwest Airlines. Either no phone number to call or very long waiting times. But be forwarned, even the best of these companies can make it difficult to get to a live agent. This morning I had to listen to four monologues from a Verizon bot to reach an agent. I kept saying agent and then pressed “0” a dozen times to get it to shut up.

Virtual assistants may be the wave of the future, but I’ve yet to find one that can come close to doing what a live human can do. It’s just a puzzle that companies think virtual assistants have any value, and its a shame these same companies want our money but never want to talk to us..

by Phil Baker

2 thoughts on “The folly of virtual assistants

  1. Dan Keller says:

    Another annoying aspect of many businesses is their sending you a survey after every interaction with them, even ones online. If they actually spoke with their customers, they would know how they are doing and would reap more info than a survey can provide. But that in itself is a business — companies who provide surveys for other companies. And many of them are poorly designed, either to elicit positive answers or just out of neglect and poor QC. An example is surveys that have a question that does not apply to an individual respondent but requires an answer to proceed to complete the survey. I just dump out at that point, and the company doing the surveying is deprived of what may be other useful answers. I respond to surveys only for companies that I respect and like. And I hate the line that says something to the effect of, “We value your opinions and respect your time.” My only response to those emails if that “if you value my opinions, give me something in return.”

    • Phil Baker says:

      Dan, that’s a great issue you identify. And don’t you hate those surveys that pop up on a site asking you about the site before you’ve even had a chance to use it!

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