/ Motoring, Technology

Are automated services there to help or hinder?

Richard Wilson registering to park

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 conversation.comments@which.co.uk) 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?


Those who get frustrated with never-ending phone menus of “Press 1 for x, 2 for y” etc should look at http://gethuman.com/numbers/uk.

And of course never use 0845 or 0870 type numbers if you have to pay for them. Look at http://www.saynoto0870.com instead!

Fran Fish @ VoxGen says:
16 January 2012

Unfortunately, too many organisations see customer service as a burden and a financial cost, rather than as an opportunity to strengthen their relationship with their customers. It’s abundantly clear from the responses to Richard’s report how important it is for companies to get this right.

Automated systems can save organisations thousands of pounds and this is the main reason for their implementation. But at the same time, if they are not fit for purpose, they ultimately risk alienating and frustrating the very people they are meant to serve.

When you contact an organisation, you want to access the information or service you need, quickly and easily, without having to repeat the same information each time. When intelligently designed around the customer’s needs, automated systems are very reliable and they do actually speed up and simplify the contact process. Unfortunately, as the comments above prove, too often this is simply not the case. Ironically, it’s often the customer that gets forgotten when customer service functions are designed, with organisations focusing on how such systems meet their needs rather than those of their customers. Given the advances with the technology itself, there is no absolutely no why organisations cannot get this right today.

Fran Fish, VoxGen

Malcolm Grant Purvis says:
17 January 2012

“Modern psychologists believe that everything we do is in our own self-interest.” (Raj Persaud)
Which sums up how much business is concerned with improving our customer experience.
First stage in defeating the automated till is to tell it you have a bag and then place a lightweight poly bag on it, as I did my first time. (My Booths bag on a Sainsbury’s auto-till!) The ‘software engineer’ (‘programming’ it seems is a thing of the past) didn’t predict that, did he. But there again ..… why does it need to know?
In their desperate attempt to make it usable by the masses, computer literate or otherwise, they design a system which is slow, inefficient and tiresome to use. Has anyone tested it with chimps? The level of programming is so crude that it’s best compared with elementary CSE Computer Studies of three decades ago (Only older readers will understand that analogy!).
My wife refuses to use them because: (a) there’s nowhere to rest her handbag while she gets out her credit card and (b) the firkin thing chucks out the receipt onto the floor (there being no catch tray) and she doesn’t see why she should have to bend over to pick it up.
For my last visit to local Sainsbury’s (believe me, I rarely go near these places) for a couple of items I saw eight of the ten checkups unmanned, long queues at the remaining two – instantly I was angry at the managerial incompetence that allows such staffing (i.e. already stress level significantly raised) before I decided to attempt a quick get-out by engaging with the auto-till.
Ah ……. but I haven’t brought my close-vision lens with me so I can’t read the firkin thing. (one firkin= a ninth of a beer barrel). Actually, the eye-screen distance is too short for my distance lenses but too great for my Zeiss Office variables (significantly: special equipment for use with computers), even if I had them with me. Answer: take pity on the assistant standing in bored attendance. She really perked up and was all smiles when this other human spoke to her and justified her tedious existence by needing help.
Since the supermarkets are counting on one assistant to supervise four auto-tills, the customer fight-back strategy is for every user to beg for help with every stage of the process. Organising a ‘flashmob’ (as a twitter contributor has suggested) to stand in line behind causing a ruckus with such shouts as ‘Get on with it, will you’ and ‘What the **** have you done wrong now?’ or ‘For Christ’s sake get on with it, will you, can’t you see there’s a queue’, et cetera, et cetera ……. with, of course, the addition of as much colourful vernacular as possible, should surely bring the issues to the attention of the management. I suggest we all head for our local stores at a predetermined time: say, at the ringing of the church bells on St Brice’s Day. (historical reference: if not known, look it up)
Seriously, like you Richard, I like the online shopping and such like. Come to think of it, I almost never go into shops any more. And I like communicating with all around the world. Such fun as buying on ebay from Germany or America or Hong Kong, say. So I see and live with and use the benefits of the internet. But, after more than three decades of computer and IT work (yes, yet another 65+ technophile), find myself being cut off from the world by a complete inability to communicate. And even if you get a real person to talk to he/she doesn’t know anything and will only read to you from a screen things he/she doesn’t understand in a near-incomprehensible Asian accent with rapid-fire delivery. When, in conversation with an BT engineer, I complained about this I was warned: “We tell them too, it has no effect but, if you think that’s bad: just wait ‘til they move it to the Philippines!”
British management fails to understand that what customers want is someone who can hold a conversation in fluent comprehensible vernacular English.
So, when will ‘Richard Wilson On Hold 2’ be broadcast?

Merlyn says:
17 January 2012

Malcolm, I agree with a lot of what you’ve said, EXCEPT that you almost never go into shops any more. This bothers me a LOT. It is frankly what I expect young people to say. I deliberately use shops even if they are a bit more expensive sometimes. ( although I do also shop online from time to time), especially music and book shops because I for one would like shops to remain, and for us not to all turn into computer nerds. I like browsing in shops, and if many more people continue to shop online most of the time, more chains like Waterstones or HMV will have to close. That would be tragic. (for the staff as well as people like me.)

Richard Wilson’s Channel 4 Dispatches feature on this very topic, title Richard Wilson On Hold, was broadcast last night. You can watch it again here: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/richard-wilson-on-hold/4od

Would be interested to hear what you think about all the automated services that were featured in the show.