If only we knew that it would get worse when we started to complain about call centres. At least you got to speak to someone.

Now, you get to write an email on a form that you submit and if you are lucky, you will hear something back in the form of a standard letter of acknowledgement and hopefully something more later.

Or you communicate via WhatsApp where you can see your message was read. Again, if you are really lucky, you will get an answer.

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It is part of my daily life as a business writer to contact companies for various kinds of information or interviews so that I can give our readers the best and up to date information. It used to be easy to find the details of the media spokesperson on the company website. However, now, more often than not, there are no contact details.

And by no contact details, I mean absolutely no contact details apart from the email form. No number for the switchboard to phone and ask who the person is who can speak to the media. Also, if there is a general number, the media spokesperson is working from home. Okay, can I have the person’s cellphone number? No, the switchboard person says. “We are not allowed to give out numbers.”

What is happening to our society, where we cannot even talk to someone from the company that took our money? We are already divided by regulations to protect us from Covid-19. Now we have to write emails on forms?

According to Bloomberg, the lockdowns of the past year have accelerated the shift to greater automation in responding to inquiries from customers.

If you call about a bill or bank statement, you communicate increasingly with artificial intelligence (AI) powered bots. When you do connect with a human, it is frequently in a chat window with someone who is busy with multiple conversations at the same time.

Before the pandemic, customers used chat and AI bots less than 10% of the time, but now that happens in almost 25% of cases. In addition, AI is enabling bots to be as efficient and empathetic as humans for many basic transactions. Luckily humans are still required to ensure that the bots run smoothly.

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At one stage in my life, I managed one of the first call centres in the country. I can see why people want to speak to a real person and hear a real voice on the other end. It often happened that old people would call about a small problem that is resolved in a minute or two, but they stay on the line longer to have a chat because they are lonely.

Customer experience gurus have a lot to say about using technology to improve the customer experience.

After doing everything online for a year now, I know what I want to have an excellent customer experience: when I want to call, I want to call a real number and speak to a real person in real time.

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