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Rich People’s Problems: Time to kill off the chatbots

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Rich People’s Problems: Time to kill off the chatbots

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Personal Finance Advice & Comment

Rich People’s Problems: Time to kill off the chatbots

Time-wasting technology costs us more money than we realise

© Getty

Of all the things you can do to annoy me, wasting my time is the worst. Especially if it costs me money.

Corporates are the chief culprits, using apps, automation and artificial intelligence to “disrupt” the older, more expensive way of doing things, and lining their pockets with the spoils.

It may be good for business, but it’s not good for those of us who appreciate and prefer to pay for good customer service. The disruption is so intense, we will soon no longer have a choice.

I haven’t reached the stage where I start every conversation with “back in the good old days…”, but it won’t be long. In a few days, I will be 49.

For me, age isn’t a number. It’s a word. In one year, that word spells 50 — and that’s old. Fifty is not the new 40. My Balenciagas won’t save me. I’ll be closer to death than birth, and at an age where severe dieting leads to saggy skin and a complexion akin to a shrivelled testicle.

If I reach the age achieved by my grandparents, that gives me about 15,000 days left to enjoy. Time is important and wasting it is not on my agenda.

Technology was supposed to make our lives easier — except it hasn’t. Years ago, I flew business class all over the world for work, racking up points and saving time. You could turn up with a decent-sized bag, jump to the front of the queue, arriving at the airport terminal just 30 minutes before departure. Tickets and cars would have been booked by your PA and someone waited for you at the other end as you walked through the arrivals hall.

Now, as corporates seek to save time and money, you have to book flights and cars yourself. How tedious, especially as it all goes on your personal credit card awaiting an expenses reclaim that could take a month or two.

Technology promised to make things better and cheaper, but costs us time (and therefore money). Trust me, you will be longing for old-fashioned human interaction the next time you have a digital conversation with a “chatbot” about where your missing parcel has got to.

In the space of a decade, the onward creep of technology has slowly forced us to book our own holidays, and check ourselves in at the airport. Pop out for some groceries, and you’ll have to scan your own supermarket shopping. Shop online or via an app and, if something goes wrong, there is seldom a telephone number or email address to contact. You are at the mercy of chatbots.

Take my recent food delivery experience. Only after I had committed did they dare to tell me that my food was not 10 minutes away, but would be another 40 minutes.

Could I cancel the order? Nope, it was too late. And what if they charged me the wrong amount, sent the wrong food or the food was cold? Who knows, because these sorts of operations could not care less about customer service. They make it so hard to complain that they hope you’ll give up in the process — or die first.

Energy firms have also been disrupted by technology. A while ago, I switched to one of the digitally-based upstarts challenging the dominance of the Big Six. While I saved a few hundred quid by doing so, I would not have bothered if I’d known how much of a mess they would make of transferring my account and how difficult it would be to find a human, algorithm or indeed anyone who could help sort this out. Endless amounts of time wasted and simply not worth the saving.

I read this week that Ovo Energy is offering customers up to £60 off their bills a year if they never get in touch. Promise never to phone or email (unless it’s an emergency), manage your account via the app, and punch in a meter reading every three months, and the money is yours. It’s like being paid not to complain!

I am going to waste some more of my valuable time writing a good old- fashioned letter of complaint to the app I recently decided to book some train tickets through. The tickets were £36 each for an open return. With two of us travelling, it probably would have cost the same to take an Uber — and I wish we had.

The train companies have replaced knowledgeable staff with computerised ticketing. It’s easy to make a mistake, impossible to get your money back without paying an “admin fee” and the app didn’t warn us that our return journey would not be possible because the line had engineering works.

Yet this erasure of customer service does not seem to be discouraging tech investors. Just look at the IPO pipeline. Many of these tech companies have never made a profit, yet their founders — often nowhere near 50 years old — are about to walk off with more money than God.

The tech disruption is likely to continue. But who cares? We live in an age where you no longer need to be in a job or to have shares in a company that makes a profit to make vault loads of cash

James Max

It makes me sick. They will never have to waste their time looking at three jiggling dots on their smartphone. For this über-rich elite — pun absolutely intended — the private jet will be always be on standby and a phalanx of staff will be ready to attend their every whim at their multiple private residences or on board the shiny new gin palace.

Expect a stampede of so-called unicorns trying to monetise before everyone realises their valuations are nothing but a mirage conjured up in Narnia.

The tech disruption is likely to continue. But who cares? We live in an age where you no longer need to be in a job or to have shares in a company that makes a profit to make vault loads of cash. Ousted Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick is reputedly set to make $9bn from the forthcoming IPO. Maybe he can write my column when I am no longer considered rich.

James Max is a property expert and radio presenter. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @thejamesmax. If you have a problem for James, contact him at richpeoplesproblems@ft.com

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