Actor Richard Wilson is investigating automated services, and finds out how frustrating it can be registering for pay-by-phone parking. Should it really take 12 minutes and £3 in calling charges to park for five minutes?
Last year I made a documentary about the state of trains in the UK. Something that really frustrated me time and time again was the automated systems used to book train tickets.
This year I’m investigating the rise of automated services across the UK and what value they add to our lives.
Automation is everywhere
Love it or loathe it, automation has become a ubiquitous part of modern life – be it at the supermarket, when booking the cinema or trying to park your car. Retailers and service providers say that these systems offer us more choice, improve service and free-up staff to focus on helping us customers in other ways. But I want to know if this is really the case.
Like the rest of the UK, I welcome technology that makes my life easier – I would hate to have to give up shopping online and I love being able to make bank transfers over the phone. But not all automated systems are time-savers. In fact, many of them seem to make my life considerably more difficult, costing me time and money.
One such service which can be very annoying is pay-by-phone parking. These machines are appearing up and down the country and as ever, they claim to be a fast and convenient way to pay. Filming for the documentary a couple of weeks ago, I found a different story:
Machines cut costs – and customer service
English councils made £1.3 billion in 2010 from parking fees and fines, and I can see why – a complicated menu, two failed payments, 12 minutes and a potential £3 in calling charges later, I had finally paid for my five minutes parking. Fast and convenient? I think not.
I’m not the only one wondering who the real winners are in this new automated world. An expert we spoke to in the programme questioned whether supermarket self-service technology is actually quicker and delivers better customer service, or whether it’s just another way for supermarkets to drive down their labour costs and increase profits.
And its not just supermarkets that are using more machines. Almost all of our banks, telecoms companies and utilities now use automated customer service lines. In a survey for the programme, more than half the people questioned said automated phone systems were their biggest gripe. Understandable, given I witnessed some consumers spend almost an hour waiting to speak to a human in another piece of research for the documentary.
Automation seems set to increase, becoming an ever more integral part of our lives. Are we to embrace it or should we be wary of it? Is it a force for good or a cunning way for business to make money while we do more of the work ourselves, and get a fair dose of frustration to boot?
I am interested to find out if you share my scepticism, so please share your opinions below. You can also send us a video of your own experiences of automated services (email to firstname.lastname@example.org) and we may even use it in our film.
Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Richard Wilson – all opinions expressed here are his own, and not that of Which?