by Megan Power (@Power_Report) In a world increasingly seduced by artificial intelligence, big data, in-app services and chat bots, the much-maligned call centre can be oddly reassuring, even with the tedious menus, inevitable waiting on hold and the frequently disengaged person at the other end. But reaching that person — a living, breathing and accountable human being — is often still first prize.

Getting to talk to someone who, with some luck, listens, empathises, trouble-shoots and resolves a distressing issue or technical problem. In real time. That’s not to be taken for granted.

First choice

When things go horribly wrong, then, picking up a phone is without doubt my first choice. And seems I’m not alone. Despite 2011 predictions from US research and advisory company, Gartner, that by 2020, 85% of customer relationships will be managed without human intervention, a new PwC global survey reveals most consumers want more human interaction in the future. It’s hardly surprising. Voice is the most personal of all forms of communication. It taps into our emotional side; the part that drives our decisions and colours our perceptions. It allows us to share and express how we feel. And how we feel informs our choices and determines our loyalty.

So it’s hard to believe that any business, especially one like Uber, which recently described itself as “customer-obsessed”, doesn’t offer the option of that most basic of human interaction — connecting on the phone. The multibillion-dollar ride-hailing service, with operations in more than 100 countries around the world, has no call centre, no phone support, no call-back feature, nada. No matter how hard you try, you simply don’t get to talk to anyone there. Instead, customers have three faceless alternate routes: log a query in-app, go online to a designated portal or use its social media channels.

It’s not a big deal if you’re querying basics, like how fares are calculated or how to split a fare with a friend. It’s a different story, though, when your account has been hacked or, worse, you’ve left your cellphone, laptop, wallet or house keys in the car and the driver isn’t responding — which seems to happen at an alarming rate, if local online posts are anything to go by. Instead of being able to talk to an agent immediately to explain your plight, and (hopefully) get some reassurance and assistance, the company requires you to search the app for the required FAQ (on somebody else’s phone if yours is gone), and then send an in-app message to access the driver’s number. Only if you can’t reach the driver after 24 hours, will Uber “step in to help”. Hardly comforting.

Not the way

As for reporting serious safety incidents, accidents and hijackings — and let’s face it, using this service carries risk — similar rules apply. You’re invited to report in-app, describe the event in writing, and someone will get back to you. Not the way the average traumatised victim chooses to be handled, I assure you.

How quickly it responds is another question: I noted on Twitter recently how the company took several days to resolve a nasty case of a mislaid cellphone and alleged driver extortion. Those following the saga on social media were, understandably, appalled. At the same time, more than 1000 bitter customers have logged complaints on Hellopeter.com, where Uber has a dismal rating of 1.2 out of 10, not realising that it doesn’t respond on that platform, either.

And it’s not just emergency situations. Last year, my receipts stopped coming through on email. Ironically, the marketing emails continued. A year later, despite months of exhausting back and forth — including those dreaded cut-and-paste replies — the frustrating glitch on my account remains. Even a manual resend via the app doesn’t work. With nobody to escalate to in person, I’ve now given up. And, so it seems, has Uber.

An obvious win

If a high-tech business like this is not going to bother with a traditional call centre or email support, or at least offer live chat, its alternate customer care channels need to be super-efficient, intuitive and fast. Digital technology is part and parcel of good customer experience, with seamless automation that improves the customer journey an obvious win. In the ride-hailing world specifically, full automation is king; self-driving cars are just around the corner.

But is self-driving customer care what most of us really want, all of the time? I’m not convinced. I still want to be able to reach a human when I need to. It’s a choice customers expect and deserve. It’s all very well being a global tech disruptor with a smart, shiny app, but focusing too much on the online product at the expense of the offline experience is a long-term gamble you’ve got to be brave to take. The company’s nearest competitor, another app-based contender, offers email support at least but also no phone support. Must be a thing.

The other day, I opted for — dare I say it? — a conventional taxi service, a reputable company operating for decades in my city. The excellent service made up for the slight extra cost, and the old-fashioned paper receipt. When I lost the receipt (yes, I have a problem with receipts), I called the operators, and was emailed a copy within hours. It felt good.

Traditional customer service? You bet. And it won hands down.

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