Fair warning, readers, this is going to be an angry column based on my recent experiences, as well as family and friends, with mobile apps and other business-to-consumer interfaces. This is anger based on frustration brought about by a need to constantly correct issues and follow up on just about every significant transaction made through a B2C (business-to-consumer) Website or mobile app. The cast of characters include Amazon, Wal-Mart, Apple, banks, insurance companies including MetLife, Cablevision, and local merchants. In short, just about everyone I need to use in my daily life.
Apart from the visionary, left-leaning rock group of the same name, the “machine” is the sum of the parts of the IoT that includes infrastructure, user interfaces, and the “support” organizations that are supposed to assist you when things go wrong.
My focus is on what we as customers use to get on with our daily lives. I won’t even begin to tell you what goes on in the business-to-business segment of the IoT, which is even more complicated and frustrating; time is money and when something fails, the financial pain can be intense.
Before I continue, I wish to state for the record that I am not a Luddite and I am certainly not advocating Neo-Luddism, which requires taking all of us back to more primitive levels of technology. The world and most everyone in it are firmly embedded in the daily realities of the IoT and stepping back en masse would be catastrophic. We have to work forward within the IoT construct just to be able to effectively live and work day to day.
I’ve written before about my rising awareness of the failure of systems to work as advertised. In consumer terms, you use a mobile app or Internet site to make a transaction, such as buying something online, booking a flight, and myriad other transactions that are essential to get you through the day.
Since 2016, when I first got concerned about transactions not going as planned in the IoT, I started keeping a log of transactional issues, when they occurred, and how long it took me to resolve them. The number of entries has escalated since 2016, with a significant uptick in issues since June of 2017. I am writing this column in early October, and since the beginning of the month, I have had to resolve more issues than in any month prior. I am up to 10 issues in 8 days.
Some writers have recently commented on how the IoT is “overcomplicated”. A key tenet of this view is that systems are now self-learning in realtime and as a consequence even the original creators of these systems no longer can comprehend how they work.
Other writers have observed that systems and applications change so frequently that they are always in “beta,” never finished. This is a “deploy and fix it as you go” strategy driven by competitive commercial needs and a key issue with this is the synchronization of the timing between systems and apps for new “updates.” If one preceded the other, then both can have an interface problem, leading to more “fixes” being released. Ever notice that when you run an iOS update on your Apple smartphone or an Android OS update on your Galaxy or other Android-based smartphone, there is an update available for most of your apps being pushed to you within a day of the upgrade? This is the “gap” where synchronization between the operating system and the app can get out of whack, causing unexpected problems. In the IoT today, this is the way of life and a never ending process.
My daughter, son-in-law, wife, and I dread making iOS upgrades on our smartphones. It is inevitable that some corrective action to resynch apps so that they function is immediately required after the upgrade. I have noted that I spend at least an hour making corrections to my apps after I do the iOS upgrade.
The more time consuming activity is following up on a transaction to ensure that it was correctly processed. The time I have spent following up on and correcting transaction issues—the 10 so far in October—has added up to many hours spent on the phone. That’s hours of my life that I should not have had to spend, but the “bargain” made between me and the provider of the venue in which I made the transactions fell apart. The bargain we have made with technology providers and merchants is that we will use them (financial gain for the providers) but we expect them to work correctly every time (avoiding a customer’s financial loss and /or waste of time fixing the problem).
The advocates of the “overcomplicated” school of thought have a good point about how even the creators of complex systems are increasing at a loss to explain how they work. If the “coders” are at a loss, then imagine the folks who staff the call centers for “Internet” and “mobile app” support and what they must go through. This compounds the already existing issue of support people not being trained adequately about the rules and usage of the app or Website they support.
This is where most of my frustration is generated and where I waste most of my time on the phone attempting to correct an issue.
I have discerned two separate but equally significant support issues.
The first is getting to someone that actually knows what is happening with the process and why it went wrong. This directly relates to the training of support people and the apparent inconsistency of this training. The most recent example of this was trying to stop getting billed for an insurance policy that was cancelled when my employer changed plan administrators. The policy was cancelled by the employer at the cutover to the new administrator, and this was documented at the time three months ago. Monthly billings continued to arrive in the mail, with the amount due increasing each time. As I received an invoice, I would call the plan administrator (the prior one, not the new one) and explain the situation. Each time, I was transferred at least once during the call, and told that the plan was not cancelled. I requested that the plan be cancelled and was assured twice that it was. When the third bill arrived, I called again, and the person I was ultimately transferred to, having reviewed the prior two call notes, stated that “they did not know what they were talking about” and then explained that I had to fill out a policy cancellation form (even though my employer had done so) to close the policy. The total number of hours spent chasing this down was five, not counting the time I spent fuming over the rabbit hole I had to go down.
The second type of support issue is increasingly happening to me and combines the first issue with problems diagnosing a physical problem with a system. The most recent situation has been with my cable provider. In late September, I began to experience channel drops and heavy pixilation on other channels. This was happening on all four cable boxes in my house (I told you I was not a Luddite). The first tier support person knew enough to switch me to second tier (cable TV technical support group) where the technician tried remote remediation. That did not work, and a visit by a repair person was scheduled. He came out and found nothing in the house to suggest a cause for the problem. In fact, he commented that others in my neighborhood were having the same problem. He escalated the ticket to the folks that maintain the lines and controllers on the telephone poles.
A week goes by, the problem persists and there has been no callback from the cable company. I call again, get to tech support, and am told that “somehow” the ticket failed to escalate; the record showed that the repairman did initiate the escalation but the system did not act on it. A second visit to my house by a repairman was necessary to continue the escalation process.
It took the cable company another week to find the cause in the street and remedy it. They had at least three crews working the problem. I had to request a use credit; they are not automatically given. In total, I spent eight hours working this problem.
The question this also raises is what happened to smart, self-diagnosing devices that could “phone home” when they started to malfunction? In this case, older, less smart infrastructure is in place and is not being replaced very rapidly.
These are just two of the recent “hiccups” I have experienced.
The IoT is ubiquitous in our lives and our dependency upon it has personal, national, and international consequences. If my experiences—and their increasing frequency—is indicative of what people are experiencing everywhere, then we are headed for a disconnect between the expectations of what we should expect to happen as we live our lives in and through the IoT and an ugly reality of the failure of the IoT to deliver on those expectations. If we have to monitor our daily transactions to ensure they “take” then our trust of the applications and systems we use will erode rapidly.
What choice do we as individuals have but to monitor our IoT transactions and interactions? Doing so consumes personal time but ensures that we get what we should have expected as customers and consumers. Failure to do so will increase the financial, social, and personal pain that comes from failed transactions. It is a sad tradeoff…
Tim Lindner is senior business consultant with a software company and a regular contributor to Connected World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org