Machinespeak: A Guide for humans

Over the last hundred years, we have found ourselves dealing with more and more machines. In our daily lives many of us spend more time working with machines than dealing with people.

At the Bank
Twenty years ago your local bank branch had eight to ten tellers. Today they only have three – and they deal with far more customers. How do they do it?

About fifteen years ago they started installing Automated Teller Machines – ATMs for short. These ATMs (please don’t use an apostrophe or call them “ATM Machines”), along with the advent of the Internet, had the effect of allowing customers to do business without having to go into the bank. This allowed the bank to cut their tellers by at least half, while charging their customers for the “convenience” of using the machines.

On the Phone
Once upon a time, you would call up a corporate office and immediately get through to an operator, who would ask you one question and them put you through the person who could help. No more – most corporations have installed Automated attendants, ostensibly to provide better service, but pragmatically to allow them to raise their profits by firing most of their operators. It has gotten so bad that someone actually created a web site to tell you how to get through to a real human. Their chief purposes seem to be:

  1. Identifying revenue-earning customers and connecting them to the sales department.
  2. Identifying those with questions and complaints and giving them the run-around until they go away.
  3. Keeping the public away from live humans at all costs.

Here are the more common phrases that you will here.

  • …our options have changed. Someone got through to a real human last week, so we re-jigged the system to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
  • That is not a valid entry. GOTCHA! See above.
  • Your call is important to us… …but not important enough for us to actually answer the phone.
  • Due to unexpectedly high call volumes… Call volumes are always “unexpectedly high”…
  • All of our representatives/associates/chimps are serving other customers/guests/gorillas… We don’t have enough representatives/associates/chimps….
  • For quality assurance/training purposes this call may be monitored/recorded. For legal reasons this call may be monitored/recorded
  • For priority Service, please e-mail your request: …and our trained chimpanzee will send a boilerplate reply that does not answer the question and will exhort you to call us by phone between 9 and 5 Bangalore Standard Time.
  • For Sales, press 1. For Support, press 2. 1= an army of immaculately-groomed and articulate sales professionals. 2=some overworked, underpaid guy in a sweatshop in Bangalore who speaks “werry good” English.

In the Store
Over the past couple of years, many of the stores in the area have installed self-scan checkouts. For the merchants, this is a great idea, as it allows them to stretch a single cashier across four or even eight stations. For the customer (I refuse to refer to myself as a “guest”) it makes it easier if you are only picking up a few items. I don’t know about you, but I find some of these contraptions quite aggravating. While they are simple enough to operate, they seem to have a mind of their own. They seem to operate under two assumptions:

  1. No matter how many times you have shopped there, you cannot figure out how to use them,
  2. You are trying to steal something.

They say the strangest things. Here are a few familiar phrases, along my attempts at interpretation:

  • Please put the last item on the scanner and wait. I think you’re trying to steal something.
  • Please place the item in the bagging area. I think you’re trying to steal something.
  • Check your basket for additional items. I think you’re trying to steal something.
  • Please wait for cashier assistance. The Cashier is on break. I think you’re trying to steal something.

Now you know.

Now Reading: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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