Bamboozled: In search of living proof

BB brandingAs the Christmas shopping deadline nears, companies of all kinds are challenged with a huge volume of customer service calls.

Traditionally, those found on the other end of 800-numbers are humans. But more and more, customers end up with an Interactive Voice Response system that tries to help. Some are even programmed to sense frustration — even identify expletives — so those callers can be moved through the system to a real person more quickly.

Inhuman customer service is also used for some website customer service chats.

Some of these robot chatters, or chatbots, appear online as cartoon characters or avatars so customers know they’re not chatting with a real person.

Others aren’t so forthcoming with their robot nature. One chatbot company claims its product is so realistic that 69 percent of customers end their conversation with “goodbye.”

Consumer complaint chat boards show rampant frustration among consumers, whether they talk to a real person who reads from a customer service script, or a machine response system that can answer general questions but often fall short when it comes to specific customer problems.

Bamboozled had never been suspicious about a chatbot that pretended to be human until some online shopping last week on the Barnes & Noble website. Turns out the chatters were real people typing from a script, Barnes & Noble said, but we thought you’d enjoy the story anyway.

(For the record, we did not tell reps we were from Bamboozled, but worked through the same channels available to any customer.)

The 20-book order qualified for free shipping, but the “one shipment” option must have been chosen instead of the “ship when my items are available” option. The confirmation e-mail said the items would arrive on Jan. 9, which wouldn’t work for Christmas.

During a call to the 800-number, the rep was confused at first, but by the end of the call said the items would be shipped as they became available — mostly by Christmas, which was perfect — and he confirmed the shipping was still free.

Another confirmation e-mail said the order was updated, but the website still showed a delivery date of Jan. 9 for everything, plus an added bonus of $27.78 in shipping charges that weren’t there before.

Turning to the “chat” button on the web site yielded a conversation with “Nikko,” who confirmed the Jan. 9 delivery date, then said the items would be shipped when available. He said there would be a shipping charge, then backtracked and agreed there would be no shipping cost.

There were long delays in some of the answers, so suspicions grew. Perhaps “Nikko” wasn’t a real person, or maybe he had a little too much eggnog at the holiday party. (Please note the chat transcripts that follow were edited for space purposes.)

Karin: Are you a real person or a computer?
Nikko: I am a real person, Karin.

Okay. When the chat ended, the delivery date on web site hadn’t changed, and the shipping charges were still there. What did change was the cost: it said the credit card would be charged $0.00 for the order, when the balance was previously more than $200 before shipping or taxes.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Two hours later, there still wasn’t a new e-mail and the online order status was the same. Time for another chat.

Karin: I’m having trouble with an order I placed this morning.
Aileen: Thank you for joining Barnes and Noble Chat. My name is Aileen.
Karin: Hi, Aileen, I’m having a problem with an order I placed online this morning.
Aileen: Hi, Karin!
Karin: Before we continue, can I ask, respectfully, if you’re a person or a computer-generated response system?
Aileen: We apologize that you had an issue when you tried to place an order online.
Aileen: I am actually a live person.
Karin: Because I’ve had interesting experiences with computers who say they’re live people, can you please answer for me before we continue, what’s your favorite scene from “The Wizard of Oz?”
Aileen: I’m sorry but I have not watched it.
Karin: Okay, then, perhaps you could tell me your favorite from “The Sound of Music,” or your most hated movie of all time?
Karin: Aileen, are you still with me?
The chat session has timed out and is now closed.

Maybe it was a bad connection, so another try, this time with Clarissa. Was Clarissa real?

Karin: … Before we continue, please forgive me for asking, but are you a person or a computer-generated chat?
Clarissa: I am a real person, Karin.
Karin: Again, forgive me for asking, but so I as a consumer can have confidence you’re a real person, can you please tell me your favorite character from “The Wizard of Oz?”
Clarissa: I’m afraid I cannot remember anything from “Wizard of Oz,” but I have seen the movie years ago and I can only remember the robot.

(Chattus interruptus, here. A robot? Really? Back to the chat.)

Karin: Hmm, perhaps you can tell me what movie you hate or love the most instead?
Clarissa: I love the movie “Thor.”
Karin: Or if you’re not a movie person, simply tell me the most important ingredient in chocolate chip cookies. That would work for me.
Clarissa: Chris Hemsworth is my crush.
Karin: If you’re able to please answer the cookie question, and again, please forgive the inquiries, I’ll be good to continue.
Clarissa: I believe it is the chocolate? It will not be called a chocolate chip cookie if there are no chocolates on it. I guess?
Karin: Okay, good enough for now.

The chat continued, and Clarissa eventually said nothing could be done, but she offered to cancel the order. Yes, please. She said she would, but before she left, she had a question of her own.

Clarissa: I have a question for you.
Karin: Sure. Shoot.
Clarissa: Why is there a hole in a donut?
Karin: We could talk about the tale of the ship’s captain who put a doughnut — without a hole — on his ship’s wheel. But really, it’s because the centers of doughnuts take longer to cook than the outside and can come out soggy. Plus, it gives a good marketing campaign to those guys who sell the holes.
Clarissa: You’re good! Excellent!
Karin: I appreciate your sense of humor. And patience.
Clarissa:I have another question.
Karin: But I must go re-order my holiday gifts. Best to you and yours.
Clarissa: Why is it that letter A comes first than letter B?
Karin: Well, I know 10 was afraid because 7 ate *8* 9. I guess I don’t know my ABCs so well.
Clarissa: I see. Thank you for that answer.
Karin: And the answer to your riddle?
Clarissa: I don’t know either, I believe it’s because of the Alpha and Beta.
Karin: Okay, then. Thanks very much for your time.

Robot or human?

The hours passed and no e-mail confirmation of the cancellation arrived. The order status hadn’t changed online, either.

So another call to customer service around 5 p.m. After about 45 minutes of research, the rep was able to tell me that only two of the items — the ones that had been holding up the shipment — had been cancelled, and the rest of the order was set to ship within 24 hours.

Around 8 p.m., two e-mails said the order, split into two packages, had shipped.

After all that, eggnog was sounding pretty good to celebrate a happy ending.

Still needing to get those two items that were cancelled, the next morning brought another try. It was a Christmas miracle: the site said it should ship in 24 hours.

Go figure.

Then a second miracle. Less than 24 hours after the initial order was placed, two boxes were on the doorstep.

Robot or no robot, delivery in less than 24 hours is pretty darned impressive.

The other two items arrived a day later.

Again, impressive.

We reached out to to learn more about its chat system.

“All our chats are handled by a person and not a computer,” said spokeswoman Carolyn Brown. “They’re trained and they get scripted answers so they tend to stick to the scripts. There are times you do have to go off script and unfortunately that didn’t happen fast enough.”

Brown said the company has service centers in New Jersey and the Philippines, and all the reps go through the same training, but she didn’t know which handled our questions. She also said Bamboozled’s experience would help the company with future training sessions and script updates.

To be fair, this is an incredibly busy time of year for retailers. The order, in the end, was correct and sent super-fast.

Tell us about your customer service experiences this holiday season.