In my eighth-grade French class, we were asked to memorize a series of answers, so that when the teacher came around and asked us questions in French, we might know how to respond. The problem was that I rarely understood the questions, so chances were high I would flawlessly deliver an irrelevant answer.
It went like this:
"When does the train leave, Frederique?"
"The pen is over there, Mademoiselle Morgan."
I am reminded of this often when, having failed to find the desired information in the ubiquitous FAQs on a commercial Web site, I send it an electronic mail and get a response that completely misses the point of my query.
Why does that happen? Because one of the World Wide Web's dirty little secrets is that there usually aren't human beings looking at incoming e-mail such as mine. Rather, the messages are examined by a computer program that purports to have "artificial intelligence," and responses are sent out based on what it thinks you want.
It's ironic, because when these sites are selling ads, they call us "unique visitors" and boast about how many of us they have. And one of the great claims of e-tailing is personalization: Their software can find out everything about you, and tailor services to suit your individualized needs.
As Barney says, you are special -- except when it comes to getting questions answered, at which point one size fits all.
The useless FAQs (why are the frequently asked questions on the Web sites I frequent so frequently not the questions I frequently ask, I ask?) and the canned e-mails present a lesson in hubris: Only the folks in this business would figure they know what I want to know before I know I want to know it!
Recently we rented a beach house in North Carolina with one of those telephones that intrudes on outgoing calls by making you sit through tape recordings directing you to overpriced phone service providers. How, I asked in an e-mail to CompuServe -- my Internet service provider -- could I work around this tape recording so it wouldn't disrupt my online experience?
Surely, I thought, this company, which is now owned by America Online Inc., has dealt with travelers attempting to use the service from hotel rooms and other strange locations. Surely someone there would know the answer.
Dear [my membership number; I don't even rate a name]: I am writing in response to your recent question. We are sorry [Hmmm. First "I." Now "We." A crowd has gathered], but unfortunately we do not support that ability at this time. However, we do rely on our members' feedback, and all comments submitted to us are forwarded to the appropriate department for consideration. Thank you again for voicing your concerns.
Come on "Doug." This isn't even close. What "ability" is "Doug" referring to? What "concerns" did I voice? I just asked a simple question, which "Doug" didn't answer. What Doug told me, getting back to my French lesson, is that the pen is over there, Monsieur.
My online brokerage went the other way in response to a question I sent asking whether, if I purchased a mutual fund online, I could add to it regularly in some way without paying a commission each time, as I can if I purchase it directly from the mutual fund.
The brokerage (I'm not mentioning the name because it's the only one I use and I beat up on it all the time in these pages) sent me a very long response that was roughly the entire policy and rate schedule for buying and selling stocks, options and mutual funds, essentially a restatement of the FAQs. For all the verbiage, it left my question unanswered.
What the brokerage gave me was the entire train schedule, which, as it turned out, left off my train.
I sent off another e-mail objecting to this non-answer and finally got the answer I was looking for.
(I must admit here that I have also benefited from automated inanity. A few months ago I ordered a pair of tennis shoes online. I received a single shoe in a box. I e-mailed the company requesting the second shoe. It responded with a pair of shoes one day; a second pair another day; a third pair another day; and yes, a fourth pair on the last day. On the fifth day it rested -- or someone finally read my daily messages stating that I only wanted the missing shoe and would not pay for anything more. I swear this is true. I've got the shoes to prove it. I've not been billed, either.)
The problem here, of course, is the pathetic technology of automated responses. I understand the need for it when there are many, many customers and a relative handful of employees. But all the time? And it's getting worse, not better, as the numbers of customers increase.
Sky Dayton, founder and president of EarthLink Network (one of the most successful Internet service provider portals in the world) bemoaned the "technology industry's general inability to treat its customers as intelligent human beings" at a recent Internet conference I attended in California. EarthLink employs 2,300 people, with 1,600 of them providing support to customers.
"Instead of seeing support as a vexing cost like other technology firms," Dayton told me in an e-mail interview, "we saw it as a competitive advantage for EarthLink, to become the one place in the world you can call any time day or night and get an intelligent HUMAN to answer your questions."
I appreciate the cost and understand that not all companies, particularly mass market e-tailers, can make EarthLink's investment. Guy Jones, president and co-founder of IslandData Corp., a Carlsbad, Calif.-based Internet messaging company, estimates that the highest number of e-mails that a well-trained human can answer in a day is about 100, with a cost of $3 to $15 per message, depending on efficiency and complexity.
"It's pretty simple math," he said. "Yahoo receives 500,000 e-mails a month. They'd have to have more support agents than . . . employees. The only way around this is autoresponse," which is what Jones's company specializes in.
"Absolutely," Jones said, "there is a problem. There's a paradigm shift in the way customers are asking for support and companies don't yet know what to do with it." Too many, he said, are still relying excessively on FAQs. "That puts the burden on me to go find the answers. So customers are increasingly using e-mail, throwing the ball back to the company."
The companies are using inadequate response tools, he said, many still relying on designating words in a question as keywords, which may or may not be terribly relevant, to trigger the sending of a canned response.
For example, one technology company with which he is familiar received an e-mail about a hard drive failure with the comment that "if I don't solve this problem I'm gonna lose this job." The keyword zeroed in on was "job" and the message got routed to the company's human resources department. That's bad.
Companies need more sophisticated autoresponders, he said, "natural language processing systems" that see the phrase "if I can't get this disc drive installed I lose my job" and figure out that the last four words are, for problem solving purposes, superfluous.
Part of the goal of the autoresponse technology is to determine when a company doesn't "have the right answer," in canned form; when a query needs to be escalated to a human level. "The worst thing is to respond back with irrelevant information," he said.
People in e-tailing boast that they've compressed everything in the life cycle of traditional businesses -- financing, growth, brand recognition -- so that everything happens faster than it ever did with traditional companies.
I don't disagree. It took conventional businesses half a century to forget their manners and alienate customers. The online businesses are getting the job done in a few years.
Fred Barbash's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.