SBC Yahoo DSL Customer Service staffed by bots?
February 19, 2003 12:48 PM   Subscribe

SBC Customer Service staffed by bots? The bots themselves don't bother me too much, I think its pretty cool if SBC Yahoo has bots advanced enough that they can use them for online customer service and the bots turn out to be actually helpful (I don't know, since I never have problems with my DSL and have never used them). What is disturbing, though, is the apparent deceit involved by having that the bots insist on being human. Anyone know anything more?
posted by akmonday (17 comments total)
My brother creates entertainment bots for AOL and they are branching out to commercial applications such as customer service. You will see more of this, however this is the first time I've heard it being passed off as a human, certainly laws will be passed to protect consumers from knowing what is real. One application is a mix of bot and human, if a bot can answer %70 of questions a real person can answer the other %30.
posted by stbalbach at 1:04 PM on February 19, 2003

The end of the article suggests that Floyd isn't a bot, but rather a wage worker in India. As more and more companies are outsourcing technical support to the subcontinent, this seems the most plausible explination. Indeed, it's harder to catch the accent over a chat session.

So it's safe to say that SBC has yet to crack the Turing test.

And it goes without saying: There's nothing wrong with talking to someone in another country, so long as they are able to address techinical issues as well as someone here in the states.

But it seems that only the Indian workers are directed to keep their location a secret. I discovered this while in the midst of an arduous call with the VeriSign people.

In another support call made to Apple, I was redirected to a call center in Canada. After a few "Aboots" I asked if I was speaking with someone up North. They laughed and said that they, in Alberta.

Double standard?
posted by aladfar at 1:08 PM on February 19, 2003

just wait till they meet my malfunctioning bill payer bot.
posted by quonsar at 1:13 PM on February 19, 2003

aladfar, it is not uncommon for customer service and telemarketing farms to brief their employees about not revealing their location or dicussing other "irrelevant" issues with customers. Unsurprisingly, the places with the loosest scripts are the easiest to deal with is a customer. As I read this, it just sounded like they had one tight script, whether or not it was run by a human or computer.
posted by whatzit at 1:17 PM on February 19, 2003

The responses quoted in the article sound a bit too good to be a bot. Tech support, no matter what country it's based in, always tends to sound bot-like, due to tech support people's tendancy to stick to the script they are given. "Canned" responses are the name of the game. A friend of mine once said that talking to support people can often be "like talking to a magic 8-ball".
posted by Potsy at 1:18 PM on February 19, 2003

Last year, I had a "live" chat with support from the TurboTax site. They charged be $15 for the "help."

I'm 90% sure it was a bot. Here's an excerpt from the conversation.
posted by paulschreiber at 1:20 PM on February 19, 2003

I agree with the conclusion that the Floyd was probably in India. Sounds more natural than a 'bot.

Many companies do not want it known that they outsource their tech-support. Even if the person is in the US they are usually not allowed to say (or confirm) that they are working for a third-party. I imagine that the rules are even stricter for international outsourcing.
posted by mumbaiyaa at 1:26 PM on February 19, 2003

Ok I spoke with my brother about this, here is his response:

Alas, there are really no major folks out there that use bots yet with customer service. I know, my company is doing the first major implementations of this kind as we speak.

The thing is, most of these reps are allowed to only cut responses, greetings, questions from standard documentation and PASTE them into the IM window. This is why they all sound like machines but actually are real people. Seems weird huh? I mean, we make bots to sound like real people and the real people are directed to sound like bots. Anyhow, you are right on -- For instance, our biggest customer's customer service is in the Philippines and Australia. So when you call or chat, you reach those people. In some cases you have a triple whammy of a language barrier, canned responses that are supposed to be pasted in, and of course a terrified rep who wants to keep his job so they won't editorialize!

posted by stbalbach at 1:30 PM on February 19, 2003

SBC called me today regarding my pending request to cancel their eBill service and begin receiving paper bills again. The rep informed me in no uncertain terms that the only way to cancel eBill is to login and request cancellation. They are powerless to admin my account themselves.

I explained several times that the reason I want to cancel is that I have never been able to log in (IE says their security certificate has been revoked).

Wait, sorry; got my and metafilter bookmarks confused.
posted by damehex at 2:24 PM on February 19, 2003

I read a piece about a year ago saying that Indian workers doing phone tech support are told to read up on sports and learn slang, and speak with an American accent to be able to small-talk on the phone when the tech is waiting for their computer to load or whatever.
posted by gramcracker at 2:51 PM on February 19, 2003

Earlier today I had to call SBC Yahoo's customer care center. My DSL provider Southwestern Bell has become SBC and recently teamed up with Yahoo. For weeks now they've been sending me emails about 'upgrading' and on occasion as I load my browser I've been getting automated 'polite requests' for me to upgrade. Today when I logged on, I literally couldn't, because the automated system was insisting I switch my browser to the SBC Yahoo crap. So I relented. I tried, but then it asked me for a password to my old swbell email addie which I don't ever use, forcing me to call their CC Center.

The guy on the other line wasn't a bot, and was actually helpful, but he seemed at a loss that I didn't want to upgrade. He didn't have any accent. I don't think he was an "Indian worker" (pc?) but I'm sure he wasn't SouthWestern either. When I finally did get the allegedly new and improved software installed on my system, the result was laughable, with icons drawn by some drugged up lunatic in an insane asylum, obvious attempts to make me click on stuff to buy or sign up for costly premium services, and an inability for me to get everything back to the way it was before, the way I've grown accustomed. So I called back, got a different guy, and he helped me undo all the damage that the automated system did to my computer.

Technology's supposed to make things easier. Isn't it?
posted by ZachsMind at 2:56 PM on February 19, 2003

You know, just the other day I called up SBC to find out some stuff about my local phone service. While waiting for the computer to retrieve info, the support rep asked me, in a very awkward way, "So, how about this weather here in Austin?"

Between the awkward way it was asked and the fact that I couldn't find anything unusual about recent weather, I didn't really have a response and it just dropped.

While it's certainly possible that the tech rep was indeed in Austin, noticed that the caller was a fellow Austinite and was mildly interested to be talking to a local, now I see that it could well have been planned small talk.

The only fact that counters this possibility is that I don't actually live in Austin, but a suburb. The tech rep would have had to have the info that Pflugerville is a suburb of Austin to effectively offer a comment on the weather in Austin.
posted by tippiedog at 3:44 PM on February 19, 2003

Indian workers doing phone tech support are told to read up on sports and learn slang, and speak with an American accent ...

There was a NYT article about Bangalore firms which do medical "customer service" for US hospitals. The employees had "ER nights" to watch TV and eat pizza. Another article, also NYT, described "backstories" for Dell and Amazon customer support in India. These employees' training included accent work and fake names and backgrounds - they all pretended to be college students from the Midwest.

I actually accept this as not weird, given the compuglobalhypermeganet we all live in. What's weird is calling back to the same Dell support line days later, and talking to the same person (with a whole new identity, of course). What are the chances?
posted by rschram at 3:47 PM on February 19, 2003

Technology's supposed to make things easier. Isn't it?
and you're supposed to upgrade, click to buy and sign on for premium services like a good little consumerbot. aren't you?

there's obviously a malfunction here somewhere. from their perspective, it's yours.
posted by quonsar at 7:42 PM on February 19, 2003

I don't know about bots, but their email based support is so useless it might as well be. It seems like any time I try to email them with a question, even fairly simple ones, the only response is "we're sorry, but we don't know anything about this, you need to call this other department". If I wanted to call them, I'd have done it in the first place. God knows I've wasted enough of my life in the past sitting on the phone to SBC waiting for someone to deign to get to me.

Now, the odd thing about the other person here who was commenting about being forced to upgrade the software for his dsl connection, that's odd. I know I had to do an upgrade process, but it implied that I never had to download any actuall software (I haven't actually completed the process, my current tech support nightmare is because of questions I have regarding that). But I know it said nothing about installing fresh software (and I could have sworn I read it didn't require actually downloading anything). Hell, I've never run their software, my dsl connection is actually to my freebsd router.
posted by piper28 at 8:22 PM on February 19, 2003

Wouldn't having customer service in india cause noticable lag? Even with modern phone systems, it should be at least 50ms or something, no?
posted by fvw at 9:29 PM on February 19, 2003

Am I the only one who finds this really disturbing either way?
posted by VanRoosta at 12:03 AM on February 23, 2003

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