Lack of Communication

One of the biggest problems my wife and I keep coming across in this supposedly ultra-communicative world is… lack of real communication. How can this be in a world filled with cellphones, IMs, Twitter, email, and even old-fashioned telephones? Actually, it’s very predictable. In effect, all this modern technology increases the noise to signal ratio while increasing the demands on personal time and decreasing the real and productive time for communication, while making live, real-time, person-to-person contact, especially in commerce and business, more and more difficult.

For example, because my wife suffers from asthma, she wanted to see if she could get a swine flu vaccination. Both the state health website and the local newspaper reported that vaccinations were available at certain hours from the hospital, a local pharmacy, and the health department. After getting periodic blood work at the hospital, she attempted to discover about getting a vaccination. After waiting some fifteen minutes to get an answer from a real live person, she was told that, contrary to published information, the hospital didn’t have the vaccine and that she would have to get it from a pharmacy or her private doctor. On her way home she stopped by the pharmacy, where, after waiting, she was told that they only gave “regular” flu vaccinations [which she already had]. Once at home, she made calls over an hour to the doctor’s office [calls necessitated by a continually busy line], only to discover that the only source of vaccine in the city was at the health department. Calls to various functionaries in the health department were rewarded with voice message after voice message, none of which answered her question, until some time later, she got a real person, who informed her that, first no one over 49 could get a vaccination, regardless of health conditions, and that, in fact, there was so little vaccine that only small children were being vaccinated. All in all, that process took close to two hours.

A month or so ago, I ordered a present for my brother from a company I’ve patronized for years. I attempted to order by telephone, but never could get through. So I tried the website and placed the order. Within minutes I had an order confirmation. Except… after a week, I had no shipment confirmation. So I tried to telephone…and again, after listening to various voice mail messages and punching buttons and waiting ten minutes… I was disconnected. I sent an email asking for an order status, and got no response, even after two days. I left a telephone message, since no real person would answer, and another two days passed with no response. I tried again, and after close to fifteen minutes waiting, a real person answered — and I stated the problem. She promised to look into it. Seven hours later, she called back, apologizing because it had taken six hours to get through to her own warehouse, but stating that the order had been sidetracked, but was now being packed and sent on its way. That was six days ago, and it hasn’t arrived at my brother’s house yet.

I could follow these examples with at least a half-dozen more, all of events in the past year and all involving similar problems. But what I want to know is why anyone in his or her right mind thinks that technology actually improves communications. Oh…it’s great for sending things to people… but for actually communicating… it seems to me that the inundation factor has effectively reduced two-way communications. I’m sure all the voice mail screens and messages reduce manufacturer and office costs… but they certainly increase my costs and waste more of my time, and that’s not so much cost-savings as cost-shifting.

Modern communications have many advantages, but when there’s a problem to be solved… the systems aren’t up to it… and don’t tell me that they’re saving me time. My computer saves me time; company voice response systems and voice menus and endless options waste that time.

5 thoughts on “Lack of Communication”

  1. Iron Sparrow says:

    I think the crux of the problem lies not with technology, but with what you said here:

    "I'm sure all the voice mail screens and messages reduce manufacturer and office costs"

    The problems you're describing seem to have little to do with technology itself and more to do with understaffed customer relations staffs. As I recall, you wrote about the lack of real, quality customer service a few weeks back. This problem seems related to another theme I've noticed on your blog:

    Companies are cutting back to save money in the short term but are ultimately causing themselves long term problems.

  2. Reinout says:

    I host my photos at Their contact us page says: "We don't do phone support. Instead, we've been perfecting email support for the last 6 years."

    Pretty good solution. No phone. No hold music. Just a perfectly good and friendly reply every time. Within 10 minutes till 2 hours, according to my experience.

    Sadly, such companies are rare.

  3. Ruthea says:

    I know that what your describing is relevant to Americans, but what I find extremely striking is that the British do follow up (after you've bugged them a couple of times), but mostly people either dont want to help you or they irritated that you take up their time.

    My brother told me something a couple of days ago after another idiot in a fast car nearly smashed by beatle, is that our society is becoming asocial and rude.

    Rather striking comment if you think about all the times you wait in line, only to find a sour face on the other side extremely unwilling to help you.

  4. David says:

    I was going to say essentially the same thing that Iron Sparrow said. The problem of the wasted time isn't in the technology, it's in the fact that corporations are profit-taking, using the technology to justify it, and failing, for reasons of greed and politics, to recognize the limitations of the technology, for the extent to which it can function as a human might.

    Eventually, the nearsighted decision to replace humans with insufficiently flexible communications technology will rebound against those corporations as the customer frustrations result in lost business. It might even put them out of business, not to mention all the other trouble it will cause to society. But by then the executives who caused the problem will have retired to enjoy their golden parachutes.

    Unless an accounting catches up with those who perpetrate mischief, unless the costs of bad decisions ultimately reach those who made them, problems of this kind will only become more common and ever-larger.

  5. Daniel5thchild says:

    A lady came to the "management team" meeting where I work to conduct a training about communication. She explained that phone and email are really only useful for dissemination of information (facts, policy, etc). She went on to explain that if you really want to communicate, you need to speak face-to-face. The problem is that we have become too reliant on "convenience"…

    Thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts with the world, Mr Modesitt.

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