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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 Mary asked me if I needed any help. I usually ignore them, but on this occasion I asked a question about a certain car model’s availability, and Mary 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 an order of magnitude worse. With no human, you rarely get useful help. Many times you get a response “I don’t understand” or a response 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. It was also clear that I would never be able to reach a live person, so I just gave up.

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 surely being done just to save money. But it’s also a way for a company to serve their customers and improve customer satisfaction. While we may dislike our cell 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 leads to fixing a problem or providing 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 easy 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, and Southwest Airlines. Either no phone number to call or very long waiting times. And in my case, my loyalty and business has moved to the companies where I can easily reach a live person.

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 they have any value.