Dubai’s smart, but I like human interactions too

By Kelly Clarke

I reached my limit last week when that spinning circle icon popped up on my phone screen. You know the one. It appears in the top left-hand corner, frustratingly reminding you that your network activity is useless, stubborn and refusing to play ball.

It was 8pm on a Saturday evening. I was sprawled out on my couch dressed in my comfies, attempting — but failing miserably — to book a flight ticket for an upcoming visit home.

“Connection error”, “page cannot load”. I was hit with all the usual jargon associated with a shoddy telecoms service. It wasn’t the first time either. For months, my home Wifi network had been up the creek. That day, I’d had enough.

On the fifth attempt of trying to reload the page, I sprung up from my couch; expletives in tow. The clock face read 8.20pm.

Switching out my sweats for a more public-appropriate outfit, I unplugged my Wifi router from the wall and headed for the nearest mall in a bid to get the issue fixed.

I wasn’t expecting an engineer to follow me home after my complaint that night, but the aim was to fix an appointment for the nearest working day. That, or trading in the old router for a new one. Neither happened.

Grabbing my ticket from the service centre entrance, I waited patiently in a long queue tallying up my list of complaints. Quarter of an hour later, my number was called.

But within minutes of being ushered forward by the customer service agent, I was heading out of the exit again with a piece of paper in hand (steam billowing from my ears).

Instead of leaving with a solution to my issue, the agent I met face-to-face with sent me off with a slip of paper and a phone number on it.

“Call that number, select option 2, then option 4 and request a home visit. Someone will be in contact,” she told me.

“Can you just book the slot now?” I asked.

“No ma’am, sorry. You have to do it over the phone.”

“Okay, well I’m here now, in-store, telling you what the issue is. Can you just book the appointment in?”

“No ma’am, you need to call this number. I can’t do it here, sorry.”

My internal thought process was peppered with even more expletives. There I was in a branded service centre, logos everywhere, yet the agent sitting metres away couldn’t help me. She was unable to process an appointment, let alone fix the issue. So off I trotted home. Back to the couch. Back into my comfies.

The next day, I called the number on that piece of paper and managed to book a home visit within minutes. An engineer would be out the following Tuesday to fix the issue. That phone interaction was completely automated; not a human in ear shot. And that 90 minute round-trip to a physical service centre the night before was unnecessary. Huff!

The whole ordeal got me thinking. Nowadays, customers’ wants, needs and preferences are rapidly changing. And in turn that is reshaping how businesses run.

That nine-to-five service centre approach to customer queries is no longer good enough, because technology has driven us, the consumer, to expect round-the-clock advice when we need it. Smiling faces sat behind counters no longer get the job done.

Cue the news earlier this week then, when the Department of Finance in Dubai announced it would be relaunching the ‘Day Without Service Centres’ initiative – only this time for a full working week.

Over 1,000 Dubai government services will be available online-only for five days straight, meaning no human interaction on site at service centres. After Saturday’s rigmarole I’m all for it. Any initiative that allows me more time in my sweats on my couch is fine by me.

The move aims to encourage customers to turn to smart channels instead of manned service centres. And the end-goal is to see all government departments completely paperless by 2021. So it’s a kind of testing of the waters.

There is no doubt the convenience and accessibility of online self-service is quickly becoming the choice for the masses nowadays. And this latest move by Dubai government is just reiterating its dedication towards becoming a smart city.

Whether you’re paying bills, filling out applications, or registering for a better telecoms service (one that doesn’t spit out that dreaded spinning circle icon at every given second), mobile apps and websites are the front line for consumers. Those days of trudging to the nearest service centre or picking up the phone to speak to a human being are fading out. And like me, Dubai residents have welcomed the ‘Week Without Service Centres’ initiative.

“I love the online services. The more the better. As long as they are clear and work, I want them to make everything available online,” said Chloe Hartwell, a Brit resident, while Heath BM said he champions tech over people any day of the week. “It’ll certainly beat going to a centre spending five hours being sent from one counter to another, being partially ignored by someone with a face like a slapped a—.”

In saying that though, a multi-channel approach to customer care is still needed, even in the digital world. Automation, AI; sure, it works, but human beings remain a comfort blanket for many. They are the safety net when tech fails us.

That option to talk with a physical agent comes in handy when issues get confusing or complex. Without it, I wouldn’t have known to press option 2 and option 4. So for now, a week without service centres is a good compromise.

Kelly prefers hostels to hotels. She once met a man who lived in a cave.

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