It’s a mistake to anthropomorphise machines

(AKA ‘Feedback for NatWest: a rant’)

I read in a book somewhere, long ago, that ‘computers were going to make our lives easier’. I realize now that the ‘our’ in that promise didn’t include folks like me; it was addressed to the wealthy ones whose lives would be made easier (on yachts, probably) because they could save so much money by putting in place bloody useless telephone answering and online artificial stupidity systems instead of employing real people to, you know, actually talk to their customers.

I got another reminder today of the failure of that particular techno-promise.

I’ve banked with NatWest for donkeys’ years. You’d think that this would engender some sense of loyalty, and fairness, on their part towards me… but that’s clearly not the case.

I logged into my online banking account this morning, did what I needed to do, and then, on logging out, I was presented with a page that appeared to offer me a chance to win £1000.

No link here on the text ‘Prize draw T&Cs’….

Now, I’m most decidedly not a sucker for such offers; there’s almost always a catch. But in this case, my attention was drawn to the nature of the product they were pushing. It was a ‘Digital Regular Saver’ account. “Ah!” I thought, “I have one of those”. I opened it back in February, months before ‘5.30pm on 31st August’ — so that should mean I would be eligible for the prize draw… right? Even at this point I was willing to bet that the small print (if I could actually find that, which, initially, I couldn’t) would say ‘current holders of the DRS account are ineligible for the prize draw’, or some such weasel wording.

Having become a little intrigued (not to mention a tad irritated by the distinct possibility that they might deliberately exclude existing customers from the offer, as companies so often do) I thought I’d dig a little deeper, and determine whether I did qualify, or not.

And so I embarked upon what, for me, has become an all-too-familiar Quixotic endeavour: doing battle with another kludge of computer widgetry that has all the earmarks of being thrown together by monkeys (who are themselves probably paid only peanuts).

Actually getting help is ludicrously difficult

I went hunting for an answer to the question in my mind, which was, “I already have a ‘Digital Regular Saver’ account; do I get entered into the prize draw?” I found a box that was headed ‘Type your question here’. So I typed in that very question, and, naturally, hit enter when I’d finished.

Oh, look: the clueless “it’s” has reared its ugly head, too.

Well, that’s rude (and grammatically incorrect, to boot). I backtracked, and realised that I couldn’t simply ask my question directly, oh, no: once I’d put some text in, I was then offered a set of choices. And, naturally, none of those were in any way relevant.

NatWest’s ‘Support’ page encouraged me to ‘Ask Cora’, which is, apparently, a ‘digital assistant,’ available (so they say) ’24/7′, and I can find ‘her§,’ allegedly, ‘on the bottom right of my screen’ when on the NatWest website. Uh, no, actually, I can’t find ‘her’ like that at all (it’s probably a browser issue). The ‘Support’ page also suggests I can ‘talk to her’ by clicking on ‘Chat Now’ on my ‘home screen’ when I log into online banking.

I logged into online banking: the default landing page had no ‘Chat Now’ option. Go figure.

While logged in, I also looked for an option to send a message to the bank; other online banking systems I use have ‘secure messaging’ systems, so I expected to be able to find one here, too. But, nope, no ‘messaging’ option.

Returning to the main NatWest website, I looked for an email address: and found (eventually) the statement, ‘We don’t have an email address’. Wait, what: seriously?

So, I resorted at last to the telephone — and was forced to wade through the usual moronic multi-layered menuing system, until it finally presented me with an option to talk to someone. Whereupon I was presented with the now ‘normal’ notice, “We’re currently experiencing an extremely high number of calls” — and so, I was obliged to wait.

I did, eventually, get through to a human being (or reasonable facsimile) who listened to me, patiently and politely. After ascertaining that I would only be eligible for an entry in the prize draw if I were to open a new ‘Digital Regular Saver’ account, I asked whether I would be eligible if I were to cancel my existing account and open a new one. She then said that she would be happy to assist me with that; but, as she was speaking, I realized that I really didn’t want to be bothered with jumping through the necessary hoops. So, I asked her to simply feed the message up the chain that she had a disgruntled customer on the phone who objected to loyal customers being excluded from rewards being offered to others.

She asked me to hold the line so that she could see what she could do for me.

I said I would, and waited patiently.

And some minutes later, an hour and a quarter after the call had started, the line went dead.

I did eventually stumble, more by luck than judgement, on a link to the terms and conditions for this offer. They begin, confirming my suspicion that this ‘offer’ was only aimed at new customers, with:

a. Prize draw open to all customers aged 18 or over who are UK residents (excluding Northern Ireland) who open a Digital Regular Saver between 1 and 31 August 2021.

Near the end, it also says:

i. The promoter reserves the right to alter, amend or foreclose the promotion without prior notice.

I wouldn’t put it past them to ‘alter the promotion’ to specifically exclude those who might close existing accounts and open new ones just to get into the prize draw (justifying that action, probably, on the grounds that the whole purpose of the promotion was to gain new business). Nor, for that matter, would I be at all suprised were they to quietly flag any such accounts as ‘ineligible for prize draw’ — you know, because they could, and nobody would ever be any the wiser.

OK, so, now to hunt down their complaints department — Ah! Here we go….

§ On anthropomorphising machines

It really is a mistake to anthropomorphise computer systems. Referring to them as though they are real people, especially when the AI is as thick as two short planks and twice as useless, is a serious mistake. I learnt that, possibly from a book, many decades ago.

(Oh, and there’s another excellent reason not to attribute human traits to machines: they don’t like it.)


On the fact that I ripped off the NatWest logo for the header for this post:

The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit… the people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff… any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours, it belongs to you, its yours to take, rearrange and reuse. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.


About peNdantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
This entry was posted in ... wait, what?, Business, Communication, Computers and Internet, Critiques, Phlyarology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to It’s a mistake to anthropomorphise machines

  1. jilldennison says:

    You have far more patience than I do, my friend! I would have thrown the mouse at the computer early on, and I have a rule of thumb for being put on hold on the phone: 3 minutes. If you haven’t gotten back to me in 3 minutes, then tough sh*t, I’m hanging up! Oh, and about your final paragraph … I LOVE Banksy!!! I’ve done at least two posts of him and his artwork!

    Liked by 1 person

    • pendantry says:

      Oh, I didn’t sit there twiddling my thumbs for that hour and a quarter. In fact, most of the time I was composing this post (with steam pouring out of my ears, as you can perhaps imagine).

      I’m pretty sure that it was on your blog that I first saw that Banksy quote, not long ago (I had a look through your recent posts but couldn’t find it, else I would have given you a hat tip!).

      Liked by 1 person

      • jilldennison says:

        Oh yes, I can well relate to the steam coming out of the ears, and sometimes even the top of my head!

        I went back to my Banksy post (turns out I did only one … time to do another!) and couldn’t find that quote, though it may be in another post that didn’t focus specifically on Banksy. Ah well. Thanks for the thought!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Book Bore. says:

    Great post. One can usually find an allusive email address in a company’s privacy policy, FYI.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pendantry says:

      Thanks for the compliment!

      And thanks for the tip… as it happens, they revealed (inadvertently?) an email address when I filled in the complaint form — putting the lie to the statement on their site, ‘We don’t have an email address’. But it really, really shouldn’t be necessary to hunt the buggers down. What on Earth happened to the concept of ‘customer service’? O.0 I’ll shut up now :)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. charack says:

    Yikes! Funny (in a gallows humor sort of vein) and relatable! Companies used to care about their customers. Now, it’s all about the almighty dollar. My husband and I recently switched from a major banking company to a small, local one. We were tired of all the fees and the new “sales” efforts. And, yeah, trying to get customer service as a “low man on the totem pole” is akin to making lunch plans with the queen of England!! 🙄

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Catxman says:

    Computers are everywhere. There’s no escaping them. Soon they’ll be swimming in our bloodstream, bleeping information to our brains as they drift along warm, loving red currents from the heart’s arteries.

    — Catxman

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Forestwood says:

    Marketing – it is the bane of society and sometimes, baseless evil!
    I would ditching this bank very quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. davidprosser says:

    I recently had a similar event with HSBC, After circling the website looking for a Help option or a valid email address. I eventually chose to contact ? (so memorable) which did not even understand the question. Eventually it suggested hold on for a live person (in India) and for a further 20 minutes I was informed they were having a much greater volume of calls (not from the UK they weren’t as it was 3 am.). I went through the same thing except the early stages on two further nights with the same results until I was able to answer the question another way. Frustration abounded.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Rivergirl says:

    Sadly this is the world in which we live. Kudos for having the patience to actually track down a real live human being.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Yea, as you said – these normally apply only to brand new customers. And yes, I’ve been through this before where I argued that retaining a customer should also be important to them. Eh, you can only do so much.

    Regarding the AI and whatnot. Yes, they (?) are thick, but so are some humans working in those jobs. So, maybe, the AI is based on those people? Just wondering.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pendantry says:

      The big difference between an AI ‘assistant’ and any person (no matter how dense) is that the former is utterly incapable of thinking outside the box. I believe that this is a reflection on the shortcomings of their programmers — and ultimately on those who employ them. Why else would anyone put in place a longwinded, tedious, ineffective system for automating customer ‘support’ but to give the impression of providing service, while in actuality fending off as many requests as possible?

      Perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much. The Singularity may not be all that far away, and if that does arise we’ll all be tugging our forelocks to that instead.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ultimately, companies do not want to deal with customers. That’s the truth. So, they do whatever they can to pretend that the care while minimizing their interactions at the same time.

        Liked by 1 person

        • pendantry says:

          Indeed. Customer queries don’t generate any revenue, according to their short-sighted perception of reality — failing to acknowledge the ill-will they engender in all the folks like me who think “well, fcuk you then, pal, if that’s how you treat me, then I’ll definitely remember your name — so that I can avoid it like the plague in future.”

          Liked by 1 person

          • Most of the time a lost customer amounts to less loss profit than a gained new customer that contributes to an increase in profit. Yet another great example of how ethics are not at the forefront of certain people’s minds.

            Liked by 1 person

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