The Importance of Being Human

The New York Times has a front page story about the All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition. In this day of automated voice mail trees and customer service forms, Japan still stresses the importance of having a human answer the phone  promptly and efficiently.

Reception desk at NTT Docomo
Reception desk at NTT Docomo

What is ironic is that, to the Western ear, the high-pitched tones and honorifics used by the people that answer the phones sound almost saccharine in tone (check out the video). There are strict protocols on how to address the caller that come from a long tradition of customer service in Japan. The customer is not only always right, in Japan, the customer is God.

As an American, it’s tempting to poke fun at the robotic, rule-based behavior of the elevator operators and department store greeters but look at us. The West has automated itself to the point where many hi-tech firms do not even advertise a phone number or, if they do, have re-directs on their voice mail instructing you to shoot off an email into the ether.

Which would you prefer, a person that sounds like a robot or an actual robot?

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