another insidious bit of the digital divide: access to customer service for smartphones only

We need another word for it.

The digital divide -- the gap between those with access to modern information and communication technologies and those without -- has been recognized since at least the 1990s. Attempts to narrow this gap are usually publicly funded, always operating from scarcity, or small concessions eked out of corporations. Either way, the bridges are tiny, flimsy, and often temporary. Untold numbers of people have been left behind.

Over time the digital divide has widened and deepened. The words digital divide are grossly inadequate, almost quaint. Digital canyon? Digital chasm? Right now it feels like a digital abyss.

Better living through apps -- or not

I recently stumbled on a bit of this gaping divide. I knew about this vaguely, in some abstract way, but now understand it more clearly: improved access to customer service for smartphone users. Sometimes, access to customer service only for people with smartphones.

I wasn't an early adopter of the smartphone. I like to add technology as I need it, not simply because it exists. I prefer not to fork over any more of my income to mega-corporations unless there's a demonstrable benefit in doing so. New technology should save me time or effort, or bring me joy, or why should I bother? So I do use a smartphone, but I apply this to the use of apps as well.

There are apps that simplify processes, so they're worth using. There are apps that make our lives easier. But many apps appear to be more for a company's access to me, rather than the reverse. For example, when I shop online, I prefer sitting at a computer, using full websites. It's easier to see products, read reviews, compare one company's offerings against another. Which of course is why companies want to drive us to their apps: once we're there, we're captive.

Customer service of privilege

Which brings me to what I recently learned. Perhaps I'm the last person on the haves side of the digital divide to discover this, but I've been astonished to learn what improved customer service I receive through apps.

I had a problem with a credit card, and needed to speak with someone. I called the phone number on the card and on the website. I navigated my way through the menu, went down the wrong path, and was cut off -- more than once. 

When I finally found the correct pathway, I was on hold for 50 minutes. Of course I had the call on speaker, and was doing other things while I waited, but still, I had to listen to the hold "music," and I was limited in what else I could do. 

When at last I spoke with a human, it turned out I would need another phone call to a different department. I asked the customer service rep for a more direct number, and was told: call through the app, you'll get through immediately. Now that is a reason to download and use an app. So I did. I called the bank through the app, and was speaking with a human in less than five minutes.

Some months later, I had a question about Aeroplan miles, which means calling Air Canada. Air Canada is renowned for poor customer service. The company has shred their workforce to the bone, so getting anyone to help you with anything is a nightmare. 

I tried finding the answer to my question online. Fruitless. 

Dreading the next step, I called the Aeroplan number and was on hold for two hours and never got through. I am not exaggerating: I am looking at my call history as I type this: 1 hour, 58 minutes. I gave up.

I then downloaded the Aeroplan app and had my answer in under five minutes. I didn't have to speak with anyone: the information I needed was available through the app, but not through the website.

This is terrible customer service. But beyond that, it's customer service as privilege. What happens to customers who don't have smartphones, who can't afford them, who don't know how to download an app? One would think that companies would still want those people's money, but apparently the savings in labour force outweighs the benefits of reaching potential customers.

It's disgusting. It's wrong. And it's only going to get worse. 


impudent strumpet said...

On top of everything else, I find that about 25% of the time that I install an app, it messes something else up. It makes things freeze or changes some settings I was previously unaware of or messes with the functionality of another app - so I'm very reluctant to do that for something that should be doable in-browser!

(And in keeping with your thesis about how this intersects with privilege, the older your device is, the more likely it is to get messed up by installing new apps)

laura k said...

(And in keeping with your thesis about how this intersects with privilege, the older your device is, the more likely it is to get messed up by installing new apps)

Yes! I frequently hear people (customers and casual staff) say they can't do something because their phone is too old. Being able to upgrade tech as needed is definitely a function of privilege.

With God's Help said...

There is alson expectation that kids in school have phones. My kids didn't have one and stuck out when it came to picture taking assignments or kahoot games.

laura k said...

Ugh, I didn't even think of that! That's awful.