The Lost Generations

Twenty years ago if you had a problem with an account – be it bank, telephone, gas or electricity – you could call or visit your local branch and find a person who could help. It wasn’t perfect. Sometimes you had to involve a supervisor but, with perseverance, you could find someone there who could help.

Now, with local offices closing, layoffs and the rise of automation, everything is changing. And if you’re not computer literate or you’re elderly and maybe your eyes aren’t as good as they were, and your hearing’s a bit off and some automated switchboard is asking you to tap in account numbers and listen to long lists of press this button, press that button … you’re on the road to being disenfranchised.

This week we’ve just had another battle trying to sort out a problem for my 96 year-old mother-in-law. It’s a regular occurrence, and it’s getting worse – not because of anything she’s done (though she tries:) – but because the system is getting more and more elderly unfriendly.

For the past couple of years we’ve been buying her groceries online for her. She lives in England. We live in France. But with the magic of the internet we can shop for her. She gives us a list by phone, we shop online at her local supermarket and use her debit card to pay. They then deliver her groceries a day or so later. It works brilliantly.

Until last Sunday when the debit card verification failed. We re-typed the details and it failed again. We then phoned her to ask if anything had happened with the card and found out she’d accidentally cut it into tiny pieces when her bank had sent her what she thought was a new debit card. It wasn’t. So she had to get a new card, but she hadn’t told us.

We then spent ten minutes trying to get the new card details from her. But the numbers on the card are so small she has to use a magnifying glass to read them and her eyes tend to blur if she concentrates hard for several seconds. And she tires easily.

Eventually we get the details, type them in and … not only does it fail but, after three failed attempts, the card is blocked. Please contact your branch.

Getting a debit card unblocked should be easy. The last time we did it, we called a number, spoke to a real human being, answered a few simple questions to prove we were who we said we were, and they unblocked the card. A few minutes tops.

Not any more. The telephone number took us to an automated switchboard. We had to press this, press that, speak our request clearly so the automated system could work out where to direct our call. And when we found a human we were told that as my mother-in-law was the account holder, she’d have to call them, not us.

We told them she wouldn’t be able to. She’d argue with the automated switchboard, assuming it was a real person on the other end of the line and refuse to press any button until they answered her question.

Couldn’t they ring her?

They couldn’t. She’d have to go to her branch.

So off she went to her branch the next day and no one there could help. Unblocking debit cards was something done at head office these days. But it was only a simple phone call, they said. For someone young and capable.

She went home and phoned us. We rang the branch and explained the situation. Could they make the call for her? They could certainly dial the number for her but then they’d have to step back. If they did any more they’d risk violating a customer’s privacy and Head Office were hot on customer privacy.

Next we tried the bank’s website. There had to be a phone number or contact email there surely. But websites these days are designed to protect the company from enquiring customers. They take up too much staff time. So if someone presses ‘contact us’ they are steered away from any contact information and sent to the FAQ page. ‘Is your enquiry now answered?’ ‘No? Well, try asking Alice our helpful wizard. Type in your question and she’ll search the FAQs for you.’

And when Alice draws a blank, you either hit a page which freezes or are sent to a ‘Do you really, really, really want to contact us? We’re ever so busy.’ page.

These pages should be renamed the ‘Don’t Contact Us’ pages.

And if you do eventually find a contact form, as we did, you’re then told it will take up to 48 hours to answer your request.

I don’t know about you, but my suspicion is that the priority at these call centres is not to answer the question but to change the status of the query from open to closed. If that can be done by answering the question, all well and good. But if the question is complex and involves follow up work, then the preferred option appears to be ‘fob off the enquirer with a please contact your branch or similar buck passing reply.’

That’s what we got. Please contact your branch – even though we’d said we’d already contacted the branch and had no luck.

More phone calls later, we were given a url where we could unblock the card ourselves. Brilliant! Until we tried it. The first thing the screen asks is for the card details to be entered so it can be validated. You guessed it. The validation failed. Whether it was the card information my mother-in-law gave us or the fact that the card was blocked, it didn’t say. And we’d lost the will to live by that point.

Never ones to give up we came up with Plan B. We’d use our debit card to pay for the food. After all, that’s what we used to do two years ago when we first started buying her groceries online for her.

But two years is a long time in online retailing. Tesco had a new super improved system. No longer did you have to type in your card address, a program would do it for you. All you needed was a postcode. A UK postcode. We couldn’t pay with any of our cards – even the UK one – because our address was in France.

Isn’t progress wonderful?

We tried her other local supermarkets. All had the same restriction.

As for the ‘contact us’ pages, one even had mobile phone down as a mandatory field. If you didn’t have a UK mobile phone, you couldn’t fill in the contact form. It’s important, said the explanatory note, as we might need to contact you urgently. The fact that there are people, many amongst the older generation, who do not have mobile phones, appears to be lost on some people.

We’re now into the second week, having fallen somehow into Plan Z – request a new debit card – as it seems to be the one task that local branches are good at.

On a related note, while surfing this week I came upon a large company which had a ‘contact us’ page with – wait for it – a list of departments with short descriptions of what each did, followed by an address, a telephone number and an email address. There were no wizards, FAQs or anything extra to help you. It can still be done.

So, summing up, how about this for a campaign – many countries have passed legislation to ensure buildings are accessible to wheelchairs. Why not have a campaign to make company services accessible to all? We have a growing ageing population. Let’s make companies realise that not everyone is computer literate or owns a mobile phone, or has nimble fingers, or good eyesight, or the perseverance to press buttons and listen to Vivaldi for twenty minutes at a time while on hold.

Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his  BVC bookshelf 

Recently released from Book View Press: French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.

International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a  glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth. Forget  Bruce Willis and his team of miners. Send for the kitties!




The Lost Generations — 13 Comments

  1. Vive la revolucion! I’m ready to march on the front lines. I can’t tell you how many problems I’ve put off fixing because I know I’ll open up the Pandora’s box of hours on hold and lack of assistance. And that’s just my own problems. I’m reasonably high tech, and it drives me nuts.

    I’ve found the best way to deal with my father’s issues — he’s 92 — is to go to his place and do it from there. If I call from his phone, spend the time punching numbers and sitting on hold, and then let him tell the person who answers that I can speak for him, I can deal with the problem. But I live 40 miles away, not across the channel. And I sometimes take off work to do these things, because they have to be done during working hours.

    I got really annoyed when I realized that one of the annoying bureaucracies was the AARP — now known by its initials, but originally the American Association of Retired People. You’d think they’d be more elderly-friendly, but even they want to shift you to the website and subject you to voice mail hell. They’re busy recruiting all Americans over 50, but I don’t think they’re providing the best service to their real constituency — the truly old.

    For work, I just wrote about this new nifty pill bottle cap you can order from Amazon right now. You put it on your pill bottle, set it somehow (probably online), and it will flash and beep if you don’t take your pill on time. It can even be set to call you on the phone. Sounds great, except that my father would probably shove it under a pillow to make it stop annoying him. And he only answers the phone when he feels like it. (When he couldn’t figure out how to work his air conditioning thermostat last summer, he managed to find the power box and just shut the whole system down. I got down there and it was 90 degrees in his place, and I couldn’t figure out how to get it back on. Fortunately, maintenance came and figured it out.)

    My comment will be as long as your post if I go on. So please, start the revolution for accessible company (and government) resources. I’ll sign up. It’ll be international.

  2. When I do stuff like this, I just pretend to be my mother (and just speak slowly, ask lots of questions, and make it sound like I don’t understand most of the new technology). As long as you have PIN numbers and such, you should be able to pull it off.

  3. Chris — Having gone through several years of illness that involved cognitive problems, I can tell you that people who have had brain injuries, either traumatically or chemically, are also in this boat. Plus, I will * or hit 0 repeatedly in most systems to get a keypad, because I have lived in Texas for over 20 years. I cannot make most voice-activated lines understand me. My accent is very mild, too.

    AARP is a big offender, NJM — I have their insurance, which is good, but I have had this discussion with them several times. I did notice recently that they have moved the “keypad” option up to the front of the recording.

    They are not elderly-friendly, and as someone who prefers aging to the alternative, I am all in favor of fixing this as soon as possible! Hope you’ve got groceries flowing again. Too bad you can’t work directly with the store, but why should they offer a card when everyone else does?

  4. You have described the hell that digitization has delivered us all into.

    Your mother-in-law is so fortunate in having you and her son.

    Love, c.

  5. Nancy, thermostats are a mystery to my m-i-l too. We’ve set the central heating thermostat for her, explained it, but after a week or so she says it’s not working, turns it to the max and uses the on/off switch instead.

  6. Kathi, the thing about mobile phones – and many new appliances, like satnavs – that baffled me was the absense of an on/off switch.

    We came to mobile phones late and had never encountered anything electrical that didn’t have a power switch. There was nothing in the manual that told you how to switch it on. The assumption was that everyone knew you had to hold down the ‘no’ button for a few seconds. This is not intuitive. And, to me, the first thing you need to know about anything is how to switch it on or off.

  7. Bonnie, we considered that. We also considered setting up a conference call so we could bring my m-i-l in when she was required. But we have this haunting feeling that, when it’s her turn to speak, she won’t be there – having got bored and wandered off.

  8. Just as a data point, I’m 47, have owned one computer or another since the mid-eighties, worked online for about a decade or so, and am about as tech-functional as you can be without actually working in a techie job or being a major hobbyist. I do not and never have owned a cell phone, nor am I interested in getting one. I don’t need one, don’t want one, and would really rather not be that contactable. If someone wants to get ahold of me, I have a landline, but e-mail is better. [shrug] Not everyone is a mobile fan, even in the pre-retirement set.


  9. Angie, I’m with you on mobile phones. We only bought ours for emergency use in the car in case of breakdown – the car’s not ours. We have it switched off all the time.

    We’re concerned to hear people talking about phasing out bank cards and moving everything to mobile phones on the mistaken idea that everyone has one and can afford them.

  10. Try dealing with Mister Robot when you have auditory processing difficulties or demanding distractions like small kids (if you’re younger) or pesky cats.

    But you’re assuming they want or value elderly customers. They don’t. They don’t even want the affluent over-65s. They want the infamous 18-34 demographic. Male; and the girl friends or would-be girl-friends of the same. No other really need apply. Not unless you’re peddling the little blue pill or similar products.

    Pat, 72.

  11. Thermostats are apparently a problem for many. I think part of the problem is that they are hard to read if you have failing eyesight. And I also think it’s a lot harder to learn to work a new type of device in your late 80s and 90s.

    Pat, that 18-34 male demographic may be more receptive to impulse buying, but when are the marketers going to realize what a small proportion of the population they are? There are a hell of a lot of people over 50 in the US.

    But to get a tad radical about it: I think the problem is the companies just want to sell and make money; they don’t really care about providing workable products and service.

  12. Somewhere there is a razor-sharp entrepreneur who will see this for what it is: a massive marketing opportunity. She will go into business serving older customers and become the Walt Disney or Bill Gates of the graying set.

  13. Naw. The goal is to have us all die as fast as possible when we’re no longer in the ‘likely’* years.

    Love, c.

    *slave trader dog whistle that says the merchandise has come into, or still possesses reproductive capacity.