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Note to Software Developers: Computers CAN Count!


When I was attending my very first college course in computer science at the University of Michigan, I recall talking about the types of things that computers did well…and the types of things they did NOT do well.

At the top of the list of things that computers do well is the ability to count. In fact, a computer will happily sit and count all day, all month, all year, and so on until you tell it to stop (and even then it will probably keep counting).

So why on earth are we all subjected to the following insult phone call after phone call that goes something like this:

system: “Welcome to <insert company name here>. To better serve you, please enter your 12-digit account number…then press pound.”

Excuse me? Enter my 12-digit account number…THEN press pound?

Um…”why?”

Are you telling me that your computer, knowing full well that I intend to press 12 digits, is incapable of counting the 12 tones and then knowing that I’m finished? What kind of 10-cent per hour programmers/system designers are you employing???

Now, to be fair, back in the day when these telephone systems were just being developed, the hardware and software on the base system was tuned to always expect the “pound key” as the end of a line of input (much like you press the key today…or click on the “OK” button).

But times have changed people! Systems now are capable of counting the numbers I have to enter into one of those cursed phone systems, so please…PLEASE…stop asking me to press pound when you KNOW how many digits I am going to enter.

The second most annoying trait of any phone system I have ever encountered is the “waste your time data collection algorithm” that so many of them employ. You know the system I referring to as I’m sure you have encountered this exchange before:

system: “Welcome to <insert company name here> To better serve you, please enter your 12-digit account number…then press pound.”
you: <enter your 12 digit account number and press pound>
system: “Thank you. Please enter your date of birth, then press pound.”
you: <enter your date of birth and press pound>
system: “Thank you Please enter your secret password, then press pound.”
you: <enter your secret password and press pound>
system: “Thank you. I will now connect you to a customer service representative.”
Customer Service Representative: “Hello, my name is <insert name here>, could you please give me your account number, your date of birth, and your secret password so I can verify your account?”

At this point you are seeing red and contemplating the purchase of a firearm and a plane ticket to the location of this company’s call center!

Now, I’m sorry to say that some companies actually have it as their goal to prevent you from speaking to a human being, and so these systems are DESIGNED to get you frustrated and hopefully to hang up before you ever get to the call center representative (I’ve worked for companies like this in my past). I suspect, however, that other companies just buy into one of these systems without ever seriously considering the type of “face” it shows to the customer.

So all of this is well and good, but what can you do about it? That’s simple. Complain about it.

If I have had my time wasted with an annoying phone system, the first thing I do when I get a human being on the phone is make certain I waste AT LEAST as much of their time as I had to waste getting to them. The easiest way to do this is to rag on them about their phone system. Be certain to request that a complaint be filed in your file, or else get from them the mailing address or email address of where you can file such a complaint. Then be sure you DO file the complaint. There is power in a large number of complaints

Kudos Note: I have to say I am thoroughly impressed with the phone system being used by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan (who manages my health insurance). You would not believe how their system works:

  1. The system GIVES YOU THE CHOICE of using voice responses or numeric responses. I for one hate trying to get a phone system to properly understand my responses, so I always use the numeric responses (that is, by pressing keys on the phone).
  2. If the system asks you to enter a 16 digit number, it doesn’t ask you to press pound at the end. It actually counts the number of button presses you make and knows you are done when you have pressed the required number of buttons. HOW COOL IS THAT???
  3. When you actually *do* get to speak to a human being, they have all of the information you just entered into their phone system. How novel!

Stupid technology exists in part because people accept it as given. Start giving feedback to the suppliers of your stupid technology. I cannot guarantee it will make it difference, but I *can* guarantee that nothing will change if you do not provide feedback.

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