/ 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 Β£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 Β£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 Β£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?

Mark says:
2 December 2011

Richard, I agree with you; some automated services are better and quicker but many are not.
I bank with First Direct; in my experience it is actually quicker to ring up their excellent customer services centre and get them to transfer money etc for me, rather than do it myself by logging in to my account online which is increasingly like breaking into an online Bank of England gold vault.
Re: parking, you may not know that, in London, Westminster Council started charging motorbikes to park about 3 years ago; this can only be done by automated payment as obviously there’s nowhere secure to stick confimation of what you’ve paid into a ticket machine on the motorbike. This was challenged unsuccessfully all the way to the High Court on a number of grounds by http://notobikeparkingtax.com, including the fact it requires those parking to have with them a mobile phone. Probably most people do, but nevertheless it is a strange precondition of parking that you have to have a mobile phone with you. Of course, Westminster Council has a known track record for making as much money as possible from parking – their latest wheeze is to try and charge for Sunday and evening parking.
So, Richard, next time you are on stage and a mobile phone rings it will probably be because the theatre goer brought their mobile phone with them to pay for their parking and is getting a text message to tell them it’s expired and they’ve just got a parking ticket!

Depends who’s doing it. Government / supermarkets and the like, I wouldn’t trust it.
Me doing it, I would trust it.

Says the man who can get the automated checkouts to go mad within 3 items or less. And how many IT projects do we hear the government have fouled up on.

Body scanners in airports are being banned in some countries due to the potential cancer risk. Not much testing there

It all depends on ho much money and time someone is prepared to throw at something. And in this day and age, no one is prepared to do a quality job.

Automatic systems seem to fail at least 50% of the time and even when they work they always take more time to reach an answer.
Nearly everybody I know dislikes them.

Merlyn says:
2 December 2011

To Mark – re Westminster Council quietly bringing in motorbike parking charges, my son at 22 got caught by this one for parking in Westminster in an area where he had been parking his bike for free
for about 3 years, near his university. He challenged it, letters went backwards and forwards, and after getting to the point where he was threatened by bailiffs, he had to pay a huge amount of money in the end as Westminster did not suspend mounting fines during the time it took to challenge them. Mmmm.
Also, automated everything it seems – from Richard Wilson’s experiences with automated parking charges to having to call an assistant to a supermarket auto-pay machine if you want to buy a bottle of wine as well as groceries (so it’s not faster as they are so busy dealing with other customer difficulties before they can get to you) – nearly all of us hate automation. Yes, the only benefit I can see is to the companies or public bodies concerned – I see little or no benefit to us who have to suffer these systems. I wasted more than an hour recently trying to get through to the correct dept of my local council – not Westminster I’m pleased to say! – my call kept getting rerouted back to customer services call centre when I was trying to reach someone working in the relevant dept to ask a question that customer services did not know the answer to. Very frustrating – and expensive, as it’s a (hated) 0845 number.

Routine services like telephone banking can work extremely well.

There is nothing more annoying than going through all the button pressing when you know that you need to speak to a human being. All service providers should offer this option at the start. With some organisations, it is easy to be transferred by not pressing a button, but sometimes this just terminates the call.

Anon the mouse says:
3 December 2011

I think most automated phone systems are horrible. Sorry wrong dept you should have pressed 1>4>2 not 1>2>3 I can’t help you let me just put you in another queue…….20 minutes later…… Sorry you need 1>2>3 not 1>4>2. I’m sure companies do this to stop customers cancelling/complaining.

The only exception I’ve found to this is Barclays. Enter 0000000 for account a couple of times and when the person answers they are polite and helpful, it is very rare (for me anyway) that they can’t deal with a problem directly.

Ever rung an automated number and asked to “enter your account number so we can transfer you to the correct dept”, only to have a “human” answer the phone and ask whats your account number, And 99% of the time when I say I’ve just had to enter it, the reply is “it doesn’ get passed to us”. Another fine semi automated system.

Ian Hazell says:
9 December 2011

Dreadful, absolutely dreadful systems. We have one in York. It would be easy to phone up and park if I was sitting at a desk, but in the street in the dark and in a hurry they are absolutely impossible to cope with. I always take a lot of coins instead…… And I am a computer literate technophile who does everything by email & computer.

What on earth are you talking about, Richard?

Here in Newcastle upon Tyne many of us use text messaging to park.

It’s easiest to register online; it takes about ten minutes. And it’s also a good idea to pre-programme the telephone number into your phone.

1) You enter the four digit car park number – which is splashed on signs all around the car park.

2) You enter the number of minutes you want to park for – not exactly rocket science!

3) You enter the three digit security code from you credit card – for, err, security.

4) You press

5) About ten seconds later, you get a confirmation – for peace of mind.

There’s a 20p surcharge for using the service.

Is it worth 20p? Absolutely! You park for the minimum you think you need, then send another text if it looks as if you’re going to go over your time. No walking back to the car to feed the meter! No paying for time you don’t need ‘just in case’! No hunting for change! No paying too much because you don’t have the right coins! No standing in the rotten weather fiddling about watching the machine reject your coins (you send the text while you sit in your nice, warm car)!

There’s also an iPhone app that, incredibly, makes it even easier.

Is it reliable? Yes. Absolutely. 100% – though it did once take about 45 seconds for the confirmation to come through instead of the usual 10 seconds. And once I had to wait about a minute because my phone had lost its signal.

This relies on SMS messages being delivered relatively immediately. Whilst usually the case, you will usually find the Terms and Conditions of your mobile network provider say something along the lines of “allow up to 48 hours for delivery”. They do sometimes take some hours. Not therefore much good for a parking application, I’d suggest.


You do make a good point.

However, I’ve been using mobiles for about 15 years and, whilst I’ve known SMS take up to 24 hours, such instances are extremely rare – perhaps once a year, if that. I suspect the relevant words in the T&Cs are to protect network providers from legal action during times of terrorist attacks, major system failures, etc.

I never walk away from my car until the confirmation comes through and, as I said, in virtually all cases the response is near instantaneous.

Nowadays I use my iPhone app. In that case I am interacting directly with the company’s own IT systems in real time.

Bottom line number 1. The system has worked perfectly for me (and my family/friends) ever since it was introduced.

Bottom line number 2. If there is a problem you can, of course, still pay with coins.

[Off-topic grumble – finding a space is far more difficult than paying for it!]

I live in the Borough of Barnet.
Once you got used to paying by phone it is quick and easy.
However, in a strange town or Borough you would go through the whole set up process and it is very frustrating!!!!!!!!!!!!!
For people who are not very good with computers it is a nightmare.
My generation (74) is not taken into consideration.
Perhaps we should die off quickly, but then who will pay our grand childrens’ university fees?

I disagree.

..in a strange town or Borough you would NOT go through the whole set up process…

I use pay-by-text virtually all the time in my home town. But anywhere (everywhere!) else I just reach for the coins. As long as paying by coin remains an option, everyone wins.

And please don’t die off quickly. The world needs more of us oldies to keep it sane.

Richard says:
9 December 2011

I have used automated parking in the UK and found it to be far more convenient than having to find the coins required for the ticket machines – it was also cheaper! In Ireland I have also registered for automatic tolling on the M50 motorway – again far more convenient than having to remember to phone and pay each time!

Mike says:
9 December 2011

I still find that the most annoying automed services (sorr, alleged services) ever are automated telephone queues. I have just spent 15 minutes yet again going through a phone menu and then waiting for a human on Game’s rip off 0871 number. Gave up after 15 minutes of listening to drivel music amnd still no human.

Don’t try ring HMRC, after several minutes of pushing buttons I was on the line a total of 22 minutes before someone spoke to me on their 0845 number.

William at this time of year the end of year Self Assessment filing is coming up and millions of people are trying to get through, so I am not surprised it took that time. Also you can hang up and call later. I think at this time of year, HMRC open until 8pm or even longer.

CMB it was last June when I tried to ring them.

Dawaki says:
9 December 2011

Mobile phones and other devices with minituarised screens are difficult for older people because of short sight deterioration which is virtually universal. Another problem will arise when one-time codes, sent by text message, will be needed to confirm financial transactions.

David says:
9 December 2011

I only use these sytems in London (where my son lives) I set up an accounttook ages just like Richard.
Two months later tried to use it again about 4 streets away and found I was in a different borough and had to do it again. They have Transport for London, why not Parking for London. Sort it out Boris!

Automated telephone services are becoming more and more frustrating. It used to be that if you couldn’t find the service you required from a short menu you either held on or pressed a number to be redirected to a real person but that seems to have gone. Now, if your query does not fit into their catalogue of categories (which you run through twice just to be sure) you have no way of reaching a human being other than to press any number and hope that the person at the other end will be helpful and transfer you to the correct department. What makes it even more frustrating is that there is often a succession of different menus to wade through before you get to a person.

Ian HAzell says:
10 December 2011

And we wonder why there are so many unemployed. It is better to speak to almost anyone in the organisation than to a computer, at least then they can refer you to the CORRECT person!

Automated telephone systems that have not provided a ‘person’ option are my bug -bear. I would not be ringing the Customer Services(sic) at all were it not that I have a problem that requires some thought and a considered response from a human-brain equipped representative of that organisation.

The worse of these and one which should be banned is paying for parking by mobile phone. Cash is legal tender for all debts and yet councils like Westminster make this impossible. Not only do they make you use a mobile phone in the street where it can be flipped out of your hand and stolen, but they charge you a handling fee for the pleasure. They also disenfranchise those of us that chose not to have mobile phone. This is outrageous and I feel potentially illegal. It is also a way of further rolling out monitoring of individuals by the state- by making you pay with a credit card, you are flagging your location.

60'ngrumpy says:
12 December 2011

Why is this question even being asked?
Of course it isn’t for the benefit of the general public.
Of course its to reduce costs and, where applicable, increase profits, for the ‘phone companies as well, I guess.
We’re being encouraged to make ourselves increasingly redundant.
Who’s doing this?
Don’t they think it applies equally to them, admittedly, perhaps not immediately, but inevitably sooner or later?
Arrogant, or just stupid?
Its like self-regulation for the financial sector, which we were also expected to accept and believe without question, an insult to our intelligence.
Something more pertinent.
What about parking ticket machines which don’t give change?
Legalised robbery? I think so, does anyone else?
Thank you for listening, I feel better now.