Navigating Auto-Customer Service Bureaucracies


Pearl River      The bureaucratic and technical challenges of modern life are creating immense gaps between people and institutions.  Simply saying the digital divide is a problem between rich and poor, between the old and young, and between urban and rural isn’t adequate as a way to understand paths forward that create equity.  Worse, these divides are being exploited by self-interested institutions, commercial enterprises, and even governmental agencies to deny basic services to people.  Dauntingly, the unresponsiveness is compounded for people when they are forced to confront these same organizations and actually fix a problem.

We see these problems everywhere.  Take the inability of eligible families to access welfare benefits, which have become so obtuse in many states that families simply give up on even making an application, while the percentage of participation of eligible participants plummets.  Take the number of families removed from Medicaid benefits because they lack computer access or fail to respond to baffling inquires ham-fisted handled by state bureaucracies deliberately intending to remove them.  Take the way some credit card companies perpetuate fraud by automatically updating credit card information invisibly when issuing a new card.

These are the big-ticket examples where we can demand, even if unsuccessfully, solutions from the political system or the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau or somebody.  There are equally noxious examples, that are perhaps more trivial and personal, that all of us experience that also prove the truth of what I’m saying.

I’ve mentioned before, and it’s been reported widely the problems involved in mysterious account closings by banks, in my case by Capital One.  Our saga there continues with additional visits to branches, where their personnel are stymied, and after lengthy sessions tell me that I’ll be called by higher ups later, only to never be called.  Or to receiving a letter saying call this 800-number for any questions, but finding the 800-number is simply a general number where hapless employees are clueless, take your number in case connections are lost, then simply disappear.  If this had not become a matter of professional pique about the denial of resources to one of our family of organizations, I would have thrown up my hands and walked away long before, which is what I did eventually in cancelling a Google-Fi phone that no longer worked, but offered no way to cancel the payments other than changing the automatic payments on the credit card.

Every dog has its day, even though you don’t feel like you come out even.  Recently, trying to refill a prescription that I’ve had for perhaps thirty years at my local pharmacy two blocks from my house, I was inadvertently swallowed up by an unresponsive local giant hospital system.  Despite promises after my annual physical that they had forwarded the renewal to my pharmacy, long listed on my medical records, they didn’t.  Trying to cure the problem on their website, which they insist is preferable, was totally ineffectual.  Finally, navigating the call system, I found sympathetic and apologetic people, who several times swore they were fixing the problem, except never did, and instead stubbornly rerouted the script to their own pharmacy, a 20-minute drive away in another parish.  In desperation, cursing all the way, I drove there to personally complain.  I happened to interrupt five of the staff having a social confab with the chief pharmacist when I walked in, so I was suddenly the center of attention.  Apologies fell like rain, while the chief handed me her card, asking me to call her personally if this problem reoccurred.  When it came time to pay, they charged me $50 less for the script than my dear, devoted local pharmacy did.  When I complained about the inconvenience involved, my new friend told me they delivered.  What rough justice is this?

Automated systems are inadequate compared to people-driven and enabled customer service.  Training call centers to handle routine questions doesn’t solve the problem of the digital divide and all of its ramifications, if there isn’t a next level with the power and experience to actual fix problems for people.  Compound these divides with monopoly powers in tech, healthcare, and governmental services (for example, reportedly it takes more than a year for the IRS to remit to citizens relief from fraudulent returns), it makes modern life for people excruciatingly difficult.

If we simply put people first and put people with people, we could bridge divides and fix some of these problems.  Why is that so hard in this world dominated by late state capitalism?