Friday, June 04, 2010

Verizon using the GLADOS system for automated telephone support?

For the first time in years, I experienced a DSL failure with my Internet service. As a compliment to Verizon, it’s been so stable all these years, I’ve taken it for granted. And since I now work from home, when the service was down I felt completely crippled in regards to getting any work done.

After logging into my Internet modem, it was obvious the problem was with Verizon and not something local on my end. The DSL portion of the the connection was up, but the PPP portion of the link was down. So, with that info in hand, I figured I’d make a call to Verizon to get the problem resolved. And then the fun began.

Verizon, like so many other companies these days, is taking the cost-cutting measure of providing an automated telephone support system. It’s a helpful friendly sounding female voice, similar to the computer voice, GLADOS, from the game Portal. (If you aren’t familiar with Portal, you are missing out. It’s a very clever 1st person puzzle game from Valve Software and is available on PC, Mac, XBox, PS3, etc.)

First off, the automated system doesn’t just use touch-tones for answering questions. It attempts to implement a form of speech recognition. You can interrupt the computer voice (I’ll call her GLADOS) at any time with your reply, but the problem is, even background noise is attempted to be recognized. I bumped my leg on the table and GLADOS stopped in mid-sentence and said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that.” Then I had to wait for her to restart from the beginning and retell me a bunch of stuff I already heard before I knew how to proceed to the next menu.

As part of the automated system, GLADOS told me that she was able to perform a remote diagnostic of the problem. After hearing GLADOS repeat about 15 times, “I’m still waiting for the results of the test”, she finally told me there was a problem which required me to reboot the DSL modem. And this brings me to the second problem with an automated system. Unlike when talking to a real human, I can’t just say, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear what you just said, can you please repeat that?” Of course, GLADOS will say that plenty of times, but I can’t make the same request of her. In my case, as part of the automated system diagnostic, GLADOS asked me to walk to my DSL modem and reboot it. Near the modem, the mobile phone service is poor, so GLADOS’ voice began to get garbled (just like in Portal) and I wasn’t really certain what I might have missed in our “conversation”.

After rebooting the modem, and telling GLADOS, “YES, I really did reboot the modem,” GLADOS helpfully then asked if my Internet service was working. It wasn’t working, which was no surprise to me since I had also tried rebooting the modem several times myself before calling Verizon and each time the modem would fail on the PPP connection and would display a red error light for the Internet. Of course, I couldn’t actually tell the helpful GLADOS any of this, since she didn’t really understand speech, so instead I had to follow her next step in resolving the problem.

Since I answered “No” to her question on whether rebooting the router fixed the problem, and despite the fact that the modem was displaying a red error light saying the Internet was down, GLADOS then helpfully suggested that I reboot my computer.

The conversation went something like this:

GLADOS: Please reboot your computer. If you need help rebooting your computer, please say ‘I need help with that.’ If you know how to do it, say, ‘Skip this.’

Me: Skip this.

GLADOS: Ok, please say ‘Yes’ or press 1 when your computer has rebooted.

Me: (Seeing there’s still a red error light on the modem, I know rebooting my computer will have no effect so I just say ‘Yes’ without actually rebooting.)

GLADOS: Ok. Please try viewing a Verizon.net web page. Can you view it?

Me: No

GLADOS: I’m sorry this has not resolved your problem. Please reboot your computer. If you need help rebooting your computer, please say ‘I need help with that.’ If you know how to do it, say, ‘Skip this.’

Me: What? We just did this.

GLADOS: I’m sorry, I did not understand what you just said. Please reboot your computer. If you need help rebooting your computer, please say ‘I need help with that.’ If you know how to do it, say, ‘Skip this.’

Me: Skip this.

GLADOS: Ok, please say ‘Yes’ or press 1 when your computer has rebooted.

Me: (Thinking maybe she didn’t understand when I said ‘Yes’ last time, I press 1 on my phone this time.)

GLADOS: Ok. Please try viewing a Verizon.net web page. Can you view it?

Me: NO!!

GLADOS: I’m sorry this has not resolved your problem. Please reboot your computer. If you need help rebooting your computer, please say ‘I need help with that.’ If you know how to do it, say, ‘Skip this.’

At this point, it should be obvious there’s a problem with Verizon’s automated diagnostic system. Besides the fact that it got stuck in an infinite loop asking me to repeatedly reboot my computer, there’s something else wrong. First, they did a test and determined there was a problem. As part of the resolution, they had me reboot the modem. That makes sense. Then, where the test process broke down, however, is they didn’t do another diagnostic after rebooting the modem. Instead, they just assumed the modem was OK, even though I could see it was definitely not OK since it had a red error light on it. And then, they had me perform a completely useless step of rebooting my computer.

Were I speaking with an actual human, I would have been able to interrupt and try to explain this problem. Instead, I was stuck in an automated system.

I finally resorted to pressing 0 to speak with a real person, and after several minutes of being on hold, with GLADOS periodically chiming in to tell me I can probably resolve my problem by viewing their tech tips at verizon.net (even though I have no Internet service!), the phone call went completely silent with no explanation. The call was still connected, there just wasn’t anyone on the other end anymore. Pressing numbers on the touch pad had no effect. Apparently GLADOS gave up on helping me.

Then, ten minutes later, my DSL Internet connection started working again. And I never rebooted my computer. Sorry I lied to you GLADOS.

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