'Online services and clever chatbots are all very well, but most of us just want to speak to a human being… '

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By Anne Southern

ISN’T technology wonderful? I couldn’t imagine having to write this column in longhand with all the crossings out and rewriting that it would entail, and I enjoy reading my newspapers online without having to brave the elements.

When I need to communicate with the 260 members in Jersey of the University of the Third Age, all it takes is one email. In the old days, any communication would involve mass photocopying (what did we do before that? Anyone remember the purple-stained fingers from using a Banda machine – or before that? Armies of scribes, I suppose.) Then there is envelope labelling and stuffing, buying stamps and trudging to the post office. Frequent communication was impossible.

However, technological solutions don’t work for everyone. We still have more than a handful of members who don’t have access to email, and require hard copy through the post. We grit our teeth and deal with the inconvenience, but how many organisations don’t have alternatives to suit the technophobes or those that simply cannot afford smartphones or laptops? How do you book flights, train tickets or hotels without access to the internet? With great difficulty I would suggest.

It should be more convenient to use apps, but the other day I tried to reserve seats with easyJet (on a flight booked through Tui), and spent quite some time trying to press the right buttons. I tried to contact Tui, but there was no phone number and the ‘chat’ option I was able to get through to couldn’t answer my query.

Has anyone ever found the ‘help’ button or the FAQs on websites actually helpful? I know I haven’t. Many a time I have been caught in an endless loop trying to work out what I’m doing wrong, only to find that the site was malfunctioning. I’ve wasted hours before realising that it’s not me but them and I should try later.

My train tickets, flight tickets and senior railcard are all stored on my phone. But this leaves me anxious that if it runs out of battery or otherwise malfunctions I will be totally stuck – like the young man trying to get home from a foreign airport who had had his phone stolen and had no boarding pass or any way of proving his vaccination status. It caused a major incident, and I still don’t know whether he was allowed on the flight.

As more bank branches close and queues for telephone banking get longer, online banking is the way to go; it’s convenient if you can bear the sight of your face in the frame as you blink to establish your credentials. But I know many people who are concerned about fraud, and the process for verifying transactions has become increasingly complicated.

The main alternative for those who don’t like online transactions is the trusty phone, but I recently spent more than an hour trying to make a doctor’s appointment while having to listen to a message on endless repeat about how wonderful their practice was. I can apparently register for online appointments. It might be easier as long as the site doesn’t malfunction, but sometimes I really need to speak to a human being to tell me the best person – nurse, doctor or therapist – with whom to make the appointment. As it is, I can only get a repeat prescription by leaving a message on an answerphone. Sorry, but I need a human voice to tell me the message has got through.

Emails and phone calls may often be more convenient, but sometimes a face-to-face meeting is called for. When your hearing isn’t what it once was, it’s difficult to get information on the phone, even if it’s answered promptly and by someone with a recognisable accent. I recently tried in vain to get information about car insurance over the phone from someone with a strong foreign accent; but when I visited the office my policy was sorted on the spot. However, not all companies have a local office. Many have a phone answered by a robot that offers you a range of options that don’t include the one you need.

I feel for the vulnerable, or those whose first language isn’t English, who can no longer just turn up at Social Security and wait to be seen, but have to phone for an appointment.

I also hear that the Tourism Information Centre is set to close its well-attended desk in Liberation Bus Station and replace it with a phone service. Have you ever tried to make a phone call in a language that isn’t your mother tongue? I speak fairly fluent French, but have really struggled with phone calls in that language. Will our French and German visitors be able to get the information they need?

Will all businesses and government departments please take note; we are social beings and the personal touch is usually what we want.

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