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Never take a robot to a funeral
by Mark Smith

I went to see an insurance company recently and their building was full of people making and taking calls. No surprise there. ContactBabel – a research company that I really like - estimate that there are 772,500 people employed in call centres in the UK alone, and over 3.6 million in the US.

Sometimes it’s a grim old job if you’re the guy or gal who works on the complaints line. Unless you have skin as thick as a Rhinoceros, you’re going to burn out pretty quick. Likewise, if your life is spent out-bounding to people who are (mostly) not interested, then again you will start to hate your life. But here’s the thing… in many, many cases, a human is better than automation, and that was what the insurance company told me about their life insurance hotline.

Now what follows is a tragic and entirely made up story about a man called John...

John’s 30, newly married to the lovely Jane, life is sweet. His career is moving along nicely, there’s a baby on the way, and his responsibilities start to mount, but John’s okay with that and he’s a good and responsible soon-to-be parent. John has a chat with his beloved and realises that they probably need to get some decent life insurance. John’s fit and healthy, an average weight and height, stopped smoking in college and drives carefully (most of the time). ACME Life pops up on his search returns – the premium looks decent and he sticks it over the maximum period – 20 years. That should see little Maximillian to his 18th birthday and beyond.

John’s now 48 and he’s been sent by his firm to a conference in Las Vegas. Little Max is now big Max, and John’s beloved, who now works as a teaching assistant, can’t wait to see the back of him. John steps off the plane and hits the town with his colleagues. Quite a few beers later and now full of Mexican food (John let himself go a little over the years and is quite literally twice the man he was), he looks right and crosses the main drag... trouble is, the 10 tonne truck is coming from the left... splat.

Poor Jane.

Thing is, Jane is now a very sad and vulnerable woman. John was always crap at paper work and ACME Life were bought years ago by EMCA Life, who then merged with MECA Life who then demerged, listed and started trading as CEMA Life. John knew this – they wrote to him – but John just chucked the paperwork into that trunk under the stairs where all his life admin ended up.

Poor Jane took over 5 hours to find the yellow faded policy document from 18 years earlier. She called CEMA Life. A robot called Ceri (Call Enhancement Robot Idiot) answered, apologised for the long wait and reminded Jane that her call was very important to CEMA Life so to help, could she please say her name. ‘Jane’ said Jane, ‘John?’ said Ceri, ‘Jane’ said Jane, ‘Jam?’ said Ceri, ‘Arrrrgggggh’ said Jane, and the last thing she heard when she slammed the phone down in tears was Ceri very politely and seeming unmoved, saying ‘Arne?’...

Well of course it doesn’t happen like that (not quite true, it often does). Instead, the really very good people of the real insurance company actually route these calls though to real, caring, sensitive call centre colleagues who gently, kindly and with huge empathy listen to Jane’s awful story about the Mexican food explosion on the Las Vegas Strip and tell Jane exactly what she needs to do next.

Then - and only then - does a computer take over, one that is also programmed to be sensitive and timely in its communication with Jane, asking for certain documents, explaining when the settlement will be in her account and letting her know that if she needs to speak to someone at the company she could just call this number and be put straight though.

Now that is good customer experience, and no, don’t ever take a robot to a funeral, it just won’t look right, unless it’s dressed as a vicar and you pre-recorded the eulogy with a slight Mexican accent…...

Poor Jane.

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