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Opinion: Technology Shouldn't Dehumanize Customer Service

A trip to the airport underscores the downside of automation.

by / December 31, 2008

I don't recommend checking in on an interactive airport kiosk without your confirmation number, lest you repeat my experience with a Southwest Airlines "customer service agent" on a recent flight to Orlando, Fla.

I forgot to check in online, and I didn't print the e-mail itinerary that had my confirmation number. So I politely asked a Southwest agent, "Joe" - I didn't see a nametag - for help.

"Use your driver's license like the picture shows you," Joe snapped. In other words, "Look at the screen, idiot." I saw no such picture, but it was 4:30 a.m. I inserted my driver's license and followed the prompt. No ticket emerged, but the screen directed me to another kiosk. I reluctantly reported the problem.

"It must be something you're doing," Joe griped. He told me to follow the prompt again, and when the machine wouldn't continue, Joe hopped to my side of the counter, rolling his eyes. He opened the machine and my printout was jammed inside. Instead of an apology, I got a rebuke.

He asked why I needed a ticket when the machine said I'd already checked in from home. "But I didn't check in from home," I said. "Well, someone at home checked you in," he retorted.

After finally printing my ticket, I just wanted to escape this jerk. But then he complained about sticking baggage tags to the video equipment crate I was checking. Joe said the tags would likely fall off during transit, and if so, I'd be out of luck. But shoving the large crate into the airplane's overhead bin wasn't an option. Thankfully it arrived safely in Orlando.

Was Joe's attitude his fault, or do these machines dehumanize customers? This question has implications for government field offices. Technology often increases efficiency and saves money, but government leaders must train employees to prevent machines from turning customers into cattle.

Citizens typically use these agency machines at the humblest points of their lives. Applying for food stamps at an agency's terminal may be humiliating, but at least you don't have to face a person. If you can't figure out how to operate the machine, a curt government employee telling you how easy it should be would feel like rock bottom.

I began writing this article immediately after navigating airport security officials - who were much friendlier than Southwest Joe. If I had waited, my anger would have dissipated. Maybe Joe was just having a bad day. But that's for his supervisor to determine, not customers paying good money to be treated like garbage.


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Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.

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