Joe Lavin

November 8, 2005

Automation for the People

I must admit that I enjoy the self-serve kiosk in my supermarket that allows me to scan my own items at checkout. It is a remarkable piece of technology, almost as impressive as the technology they installed years ago to ensure that every single time I go to the supermarket I end up in the longest possible line. It is also part of what seems to be the automation of absolutely everything. Soon, you may be able to walk into the grocery store and never have any employees talk to you at all, sort of like today except that when you're not sure whether you want paper or plastic the computers won't glare at you as if you're the lamest person in the world.

The supermarket kiosks do offer incredible convenience, not the least of which is the convenience to accidentally miss an item when you're checking out. Two for the price of one can suddenly become three for the price of one with a mere Houdini-like sleight of hand, and it's probably the first thing anyone ever thinks of when they use these machines -- not that any of us have done this, of course. And, if we have, it was completely justified.

You have to wonder how supermarkets can be this trusting of their customers. Then again, they're probably not. Skip one too many packages of cookies during checkout, and an iron cage will no doubt descend down around you, as the Stop and Shop Storm Troopers start shooting. I haven't seen the supermarkets try this yet, but I wouldn't put it past them. These days, you can never know how far the Patriot Act extends.

Many dislike these kiosks because they take away jobs. It's a valid point, and at the supermarket I often carefully weigh this concern with the chance to save 0.000003 seconds in the checkout lane. Like most people, I usually go with 0.000003 seconds, but that doesn't mean I'm not concerned with the increased automation. Luckily, the machines have created an amazing amount of job security for at least one person, that guy who comes over and fixes the stupid machine when it stops working every five minutes. One glorious day in the automated future, I believe that every checkout lane in every supermarket will be completely automatic, except that each will come with its very own technical support specialist.

Still, one worries that the shopping experience will soon become like voice mail, where there are rumors that people exist but little actual proof. For example, I like to believe that humans still exist at my phone company, but I have no empirical evidence of this. In fact, the only proof I do have of actual people working there is the thought that there must have been someone around to create such an all-powerful voice mail system in the first place. It's sort of the Intelligent Design theory of customer service, and frankly I don't have much faith in it.

Luckily, there is hope. In Sunday's Boston Globe (Official Motto: "We're not entirely responsible for Theo leaving the Red Sox."), Bruce Mohl wrote about a man named Paul English who has compiled a list of ways to reach a live operator on the voice mail systems of several major companies. Granted, the Supreme Voice Mail Architect may have made it seem impossible to reach a real live human being -- or even a dead one. We're not that picky here. However, like computer networks, there is usually a backdoor in each system, you know, just in case the Architect himself ever needs to talk to a live body.

Thankfully, these glitches in the Voice Mail Matrix have been recorded at Some of the steps needed to reach an operator are plain ridiculous. It is almost as if voice mail was invented by some 34-year-old-single guy with communication issues. Here are some examples.

For E-Trade, you have to hit the # sign four times.

For Dell Computer, try the easy to remember sequence of "option 1, xt 7266966, option 1, option 4, option 4."

For Sovereign Bank, you have to follow this incredible sequence: "1 for English, 1 for personal banking, 3, then social number, #, passcode, #, then 0 (between 1-3 times)."

For American Express, to reach a person you need to press 0, bang your phone against the wall until it falls into pieces, and then loudly perform the mating call of a mallard duck, although I might have read that one wrong.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but it almost seems as if these companies don't actually want to talk to you. In fact, here's the key quote in the article from Jim White, a senior vice president at Sovereign Bank, "Yo, we don't actually want to talk to you."

Okay, he didn't exactly say that. Instead, when asked why they don't give customers an option to talk with an operator, the vice-president at Sovereign said incredibly, "That costs too much money. In our business, seconds count." The seconds of customers, unfortunately, do not count. May Mr. White soon be stuck on voice mail himself, preferably with my phone company. That'll learn him.

©2005 Joe Lavin

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October 18, 2005
The New World of Consumer Tracking
Recently, I bought Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre's "Spychips," a new book about how something called RFID allows all your purchases to be tracked, but you probably already knew that I bought it. According to this book, our privacy is clearly at risk. What's worse is that our privacy may be at risk from things as simple as cans of soup, all because of electronic tracking tags that corporate America plans to place on consumer products. It's one thing to be spied on by suave super agents, but it's downright insulting when you're foiled by the food in your pantry. ( More.... )