Automated Call Menus Are the Epitome of Shitty Automation

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Like self-checkout kiosks—perhaps even more so—automated phone menus are a prime example of shitty automation. They are exemplars of the kind of automated system that no user asked for, that are deployed solely in an effort to pad corporate bottom lines by cutting labor costs, and that ultimately make everyone who encounters them worse off.

I’ve been working on a deeper dive into how these very bad systems rose to corporate ubiquity, but for now, I just had to flag this bit of consumer research on customer service automation. According to a survey commissioned by Invoca, a call-tracking software company, and carried out by the Harris Poll, over half of users become instantly frustrated whenever they encounter an automated customer service response system:

“The survey found that when a company only has automated communications – with no option for a human interaction – more than half of consumers (52%) feel frustrated and nearly one in five (18%) feel angry, with just 16% saying they enjoy that kind of experience with a brand.”


Yikes. Taken with the requisite grain of salt (this was commissioned by call analytics company) this seems fairly remarkable, given how used to enduring these shitty systems we ought to have become by now—automated call centers have been around for decades, even if they’ve only more recently reached the heights of mega-perversity we see today. Yet just 16 percent of people surveyed were okay with automated responses, 18 percent actively grow angry at them, and over half are frustrated by them—even after the companies that deploy the technology have had decades to improve this kind of experience.


It’s faceless, it’s everywhere, and it’s loathed—that’s shitty automation. Furthermore, as Invoca notes, “experts” at purveyors of enterprise tech software like IBM project that, “by 2020, 85% of all customer interactions will be handled without a human agent.” So, by next year, if IBM and Invoca are correct, the percentage of calls handled entirely by automated AI systems will almost perfectly match the percentage of people who dislike them.

Now, that’s a rather bullish figure on IBM’s part, but it’s not too hard to swallow. When we call any corporation that we have the misfortune of having to interface with—a bank, Amazon, an insurance provider, etc—we expect an automated system. It’s the norm. There is also, I’d say from anecdotal experience alone, a direct corollary between the size of a corporation—and the degree of its need to be competitive—and the likelihood you’ll get an automated system.


You are stuck with your utility, your phone company, or your internet provider—you call them, you’re getting an automated system for sure. Same goes with Amazon, pretty much any massive corporate retailer, and so on. These companies know you probably hate automated call systems, they have simply decided your irritation-to-outright-rage does not matter as much as employing fewer customer service representatives. It’s also why a handful of companies include red button escape hatch for truly aggravated users, wherein swearing at your phone will speed your connection to a real person.

The upshot of this trend, which is draped in inevitability by the boosters of AI and enterprise software salespeople and technology writers everywhere, is that in addition to worsening experiences for most people involved, millions of jobs are likely to be lost. According to the Site Selection Group, a business consultancy, there are 3.3 million call center workers in the U.S. alone, and when 85 percent of all customer service interactions are carried out by AI and automated systems, that probably means millions of lost jobs.


Indeed, studies show that call center representatives sit near the top of the list of “most vulnerable jobs to automation.” It’s no wonder why: Automated voice response systems are seven times cheaper than live agents, by at least one estimate. That is a compelling reason for any manager or executive to lobby for automation, and it’s why people dread picking up the phone to do just about any business at all with a corporation.

And so the multinationals, utilities, and almost-monopolies are implementing systems that most of us despise or, at best, tolerate, at an accelerating rate. Technology is improving, but almost everyone would still rather talk to a real person than a clumsy AI. Google’s voice assistant and other systems may overturn the current regime—Google’s even giving us (somewhat) AI-powered automated call technology—but until then, customer service will continue to be dominated by shitty automation.


This post has been updated to reflect that the survey encompassed all automated customer response systems.