Friday, April 15, 2011

Why Computers are Better than People, Sometimes.

Univac circa 1951.  Your cellphone probably has about 1000 times the computing power of UNIVAC.

Computers are great.  And in fact, for many transactions, they are better and more reliable than people.  And companies that understand how to use computers - companies that "Get It" - make life a lot easier for all of us.

On the other hand, there are companies that simply don't "Get It" and make more work than necessary when using computers - they leave a man-in-the-loop, or more precisely the ditzbrain-assistant-in-the-loop, thinking this enhances security or safety, when in fact it just cases more problems than it solves.

GEICO, for example, has a kick-ass website.  You can log on, obtain insurance for your car and then access your account and change almost any feature - add a car, delete a car, add coverage, delete coverage, etc., without having to "call an operator for assistance".

Other companies, such as State Farm, don't "Get It" at all.  You go on their website and the most you can do is check your balance.  And this is only after "adding your policies" to your online account, which can take days, if not weeks.   Anything beyond basic balance information requires an expensive 1-800 call, time on hold, and then talking to a call center in India, where the operator there can basically tell you your balance - and not much else.

When done properly, a good website is easy to navigate, allows the user to make most all changes he wants to his account - even obscure or little-used options.

When done improperly, a bad website is a nightmare to navigate, provides few options, other than perhaps change-of-address, and requires a call to a call center or agent to make any other changes.

And the problem with the latter model is that not only does it increase costs for the company involved (each call center call costs a company several dollars) but it also means that accuracy and security are worse.  When you put some ditzbrain assistant or Indian call-center person in the loop, the odds of them misunderstanding you and a mistake being made are magnified significantly.

For example, I called State Farm to change a policy and the ditzbrain assistant cancels it instead.   The State Farm website is balky and hard to use, and they want to steer you to a "helpful agent" with a phone call, instead of providing a truly interactive platform.  And a phone call is NOT quicker than the Internet.  Oftentimes, you get voice mail, because they are too busy, or you have to wait on hold, or they "take a message and get back to you" days later.

And what is it they have to do?  The ditzbrain assistant gets on a computer and types in data - the same data you could type into the website yourself.  Only since you are not a ditzbrain, and since you aren't playing "telephone operator" or the ditzbrain is trying to read a scribbled note, the chances of getting it RIGHT are increased greatly.  And if you get it WRONG, well, its your fault, not some ditzbrain.

And yes, people today still say things like "I don't trust computers, they may go haywire" as if they were like the robot from Lost in Space.  But I think we really have gotten beyond that point today - computers are ubiquitous, and chances are, whether you realize it or not, you already own dozens of them.

Yes, dozens - everything from your cell phone to your DVD player to your television, your home thermostat, all of your appliances, your digital camera, your iPod, even your watch.  Oh yea, even your home computer or laptop (which may have numerous processors).  Your car may have a half dozen or more - for everything from the engine management control, to the HVAC control, to the airbag system, to the anti-lock brakes, to even the stereo.

If you say you "don't like computers", well, your only option today is to become Amish.  Because otherwise, like it or not, they are in your life, for good.

And this is not a bad thing.  Properly Done, computers can enhance your life.  Good websites like the GEICO one noted above, or Bank of America, can make your life easier and simpler - and more accurate.  The idea that it is better to send pieces of paper in the mail or "talk to a person" about customer service matters is often flawed - as these archaic methods are fraught with risk, are time-consuming, and often end up being the cause of customer service problems.

And let's face it, the type of work done by a bank teller is pretty mindless - cashing and depositing checks, making change, that sort of thing.  They have to go by certain rules, so there is never any advantage of "talking to a real person" at the bank, as opposed to using the ATM.  All the teller is doing is punching in the numbers you'd be putting into the ATM, much as Japan's vaunted make-work "elevator ladies" will push the floor button for you at the Imperial Hotel.  You can do it yourself, quicker and cheaper.

And again, Bank of America is way ahead of the curve here.  Want to deposit a check?  You can slip it in a slot in the machine, no envelope required, and it will scan it in optically and credit your account within 24 hours.  It beats the heck out of a teller, and is open 24 hours a day.   It cuts costs for the bank, which means in turn that the bank can offer services for less - or for free.

Citibank is trying to do the same thing - with an entirely teller-less model of banking.  It is a great idea and will catch on - eventually.

And yes, this means a lot more brain-dead jobs will go by the wayside.  The job of "bank teller" or even "branch manager" will disappear along with brick-and-mortar banks, just as the jobs of "store clerk" at Blockbuster went away.

And wishing it to not be so isn't really going to change things - nor is it constructive for your personal life.  People cause a lot of problems on this planet, and technology has allowed us to populate the planet more and more.  But it is also technology that provides solutions to a lot of the problems our society creates.

It's funny, but I prefer computers to people, any day.  I called up Bank of America once, to check on the balance on an account while traveling.  I was surprised to get a human voice on the phone, instead of the easy-to-use DTMF menu tree.  She said to me "If the call center isn't busy, we answer calls to our 1-800 number."

And funny thing, as I told her, I said, "Gee, I was kind of hoping....well, you know... to get the computer!"

Because I don't have to explain my life's story to a computer, or explain it several times, or have them get it all wrong, or have misunderstandings.

Sometimes, the computer is better.  And that's not a bad thing!