Ambiguity, human conversations, and customer support

A friend came over to my place and decided to stay the weekend. Then he remembered the newspaper waala and called him up. It was a 30-second conversation. The man recognised my friend by voice, said okay when my friend told him not to deliver the next day’s newspaper, and that was it. As an afterthought, my friend told him to bring the bill the day after. That was it. They were done.

I got to thinking how the same task might have worked out if the newspaper distribution system was run by a large company. My friend would have had to call a customer support line and talk to an automated voice on the other end. After a lot of key-pressing, he would have had to enter some sort of customer ID and specify the calendar date on which he did not want his newspaper delivered. Then he would have received an SMS confirmation of the request with a code which he may or may not have to produce at a later date if it turned out that the whole process had failed. I will not go into the details of what he might have had to go through in order to get his bill the day after. Use your imagination.

When my friend talks with his newspaper waala, he does not need to get into specifics. Their conversation works out just fine without numbers, confirmations, and registration. A very human kind of understanding permeates it all. Human conversations are illogical, irrational, and human beings communicate best when there is an element of ambiguity involved. The elaborate customer service mechanisms that I have to deal with every time I call up my phone company can’t simulate a human conversation because they work in the service of an “organisation”. Organisations, by definition, are organised. They can’t not be organised. They can’t adapt to easily deal with ambiguity as easily as a human being can.