Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Interfacing without Faces

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Interfacing without Faces

Article excerpt

AT 7:30 on a Saturday morning, a suburbanite arrives at an automated teller machine, eager for cash and an early start on the day. But a sign covering the screen delivers bad news: "This machine is temporarily out of service."

The customer sighs. The bank won't open for another hour, so the only choice is to drive to another ATM or return to this one later. Yet who knows how long "temporarily" will be? And who wants to waste time retracing steps on a day filled with errands?

As inconveniences go, this is not a world-shaking event. But as Americans become more and more dependent on technology, it illustrates the ripple effect a high-tech failure can produce.

Two weeks ago, when the roof of a computer center in Clifton, N.J., collapsed under the weight of heavy snow, it brought down 5,000 teller machines serving a million customers. Bankers are still calculating the cost of lost business, though no one can put a price tag on customers' inconvenience and annoyance during the weeklong breakdown, the nation's largest ever.

In simpler, low-tech times, when banking required a face-to-face encounter with a live teller, backup systems were predictable. If one teller took a break, a sign, "Next window, please," directed customers to someone else. Now, even though tellers have been given a new, user-friendly title - customer service representative - many depositers rarely set foot inside the bank, preferring to do business with a faceless, voiceless screen at odd hours.

Still, that preference for machines has its limits. Increasingly, the old telephone-company phrase, "Let your fingers do the walking," is being updated with another suggestion that could read, "Let your voice mail do the talking." Business callers accustomed to talking to an operator or a receptionist hear a disembodied voice offering a "menu" and instructing them to "Press 1" - or 2 or 3 or 4 - for the appropriate department.

Not everyone sees this as progress. In rebellion, one exasperated telephone user, Sidney Werlin of Belmont, Mass., has just persuaded his state senator to file a bill that would require Massachusetts companies with more than 25 employees to "provide direct access to a live human operator through its main listed number. …

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