Bots and automation don’t automagically create a great customer experience


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The alliterated alternate title for this post could be: Tickets, Tools, and Taylor Swift — One Father’s Afternoon in Automated Customer Experience Purgatory. Subtitle: a small case study of anti-patterns for customer experience bots and automation.

My daughter turned 10 this year. As a present, my wife and I agreed to take her to her first big pop concert, a stadium tour by Taylor Swift. (Don’t judge. Or, if you do, know that I’ll simply shake it off. Because haters gonna hate, hate, hate. Sorry.)

View Tickets — A Tempting CTA

We bought tickets online months in advance, through the official ticket provider — let’s call them Ticketmuster — to make sure we had good seats. And, blimey, did they cost a fortune. So I was financially invested in this evening of entertainment with pretty high expectations.

But the real investment was emotional. My daughter was exhilirated about going to her first concert, and we were talking about it for weeks leading up to it. From everything we’d heard, the show itself was a spectacular production of sound, lights, dancers, fireworks, synchronized IoT wristbands, flying chariots. And Taylor Swift, of course.

So come the Saturday morning of the concert, we were at peak pre-teen anticipation.

View Your Tickets — Or Not

The afternoon of the show, I decided to bring up our tickets on my mobile phone. I’d been receiving emails from Ticketmuster for months from hat included call-to-actions to “View Tickets,” so I assumed that would be easy enough to do.

View My Mobile Tickets

Apparently not.

When I actually clicked through to my account, navigated to the concert listed in my account, and went to view my tickets, I received an error-like message saying that these tickets had been sent in the mail and weren’t available online.

A little wave of panic. I didn’t remember receiving any tickets in the mail.

After 15 minutes of franticly checking all the possible places where we put important mail and finding nothing, I decided to call Ticketmuster customer support. This must happen all the time, I told myself. They could tap away on their computer and send me the tickets on my phone, as clearly all their emails suggested was possible.

I found their customer service number — it took some hunting — and called them.

The line was busy.

I redialed. Busy again.

Dialed three more times. Busy. Busy. Busy.

Chatbot to the Rescue — Or Not

At this point, I’m seriously considering the possibility that we might not be going to the concert that night. Not. A. Pleasant. Thought. What should I do?

Then, remembering that I work in martech, and, hey, chatbots are all the rage these days, I go to Ticketmuster’s site to see if they have live chat — and, hallelujah, they do. I initiate a chat, “Hi, we apparently never received our tickets in the mail for tonight’s show. How do we get them?”

Live Chat to the Rescue

“Whew. This will be easy,” I think.

The chatbot replies: “You are number 54 in the Queue.” (A capital “Q” queue.)

Five minutes later, number 49. Another five minutes, number 45. I picture two overworked customer service reps, flooded with incoming chats, typing as fast as they can. I feel sorry for them, but a little annoyed that Ticketmuster clearly didn’t staff their chat center with enough people to handle demand.

Doing the math, I realize it’s going to be at least half an hour before I actually get to chat in the online chat. So I try their phone number again.

And it rings! And it gets picked up. By… an automated voice system.

Voicebots. The precursor to chatbots. We’ve been framing the cost-efficiency of automation as a “feature” for customers to self-service themselves to bliss for decades. But raise your hand if you’ve ever had your own tale of woe dealing with one of these robotic customer service gatekeepers. Thought so.

Ticketmuster’s voicebot asks me to speak my order number. I read it out.

Then it asks me, for verification purposes, to enter the last four digits of the credit card I used to purchase the tickets.

Funny thing. Remember I bought these tickets months in advance? Well, in the intervening time period, my credit card was compromised in a data breach at a large merchant.

(Pro tip: good customer experience should include securing your customer’s sensitive data.)

As is now common protocol, my bank sent me a new card. I dutifully destroyed the old one and erased it from my memory. When would you ever need an old, invalidated credit card again?

“To verify your order, enter the last four digits of the credit card used for this purchase,” the voicebot prompted me again.

I take my best guess. “That number is not correct. To verify your order, enter…”

Surely, I’m not the only customer who has ever canceled a card since their original purchase. There must be an override for dealing with that as a fairly common exception. I instinctively press “0” for an operator to sort this out. “That number is not correct. To verify your order, enter…”

I look over at the clock and my daughter hovering anxiously nearby.

“Please help,” I plead into the phone. Silence. Cold, empty space. Broken a few seconds later only by, “To verify your order, enter…”

I hang up.

I’m number 37 in the chatbot queue. So I sit and wait. What else am I going to do? While I’m waiting, an idea occurs to me, and I search my email for old receipts that might have the last four digits of my former credit card. Found one! I try calling back on the phone, but the line is busy again.

Arrrghh. Forget the phone. I’m number 18 in the chatbot queue. Salvation is in sight.

After what feels like an eternity, which I spend imagining a crestfallen look on my daughter’s face for the rest of her childhood and double-checking that I didn’t miss some buried link in Ticketmuster’s emails that would magically pull up my tickets, the chatbot comes alive, “Hello, my name is Elias. Thanks for contacting us.”

“Please help. We never received our tickets in the mail or somehow they got lost.”

I verify my order number. And my address. They don’t ask me for the last four digits of my credit card. A couple minutes go by while I wait for a response.

“Due to your order being VIP. I would have to refer you to them so they may assist you accordingly to your purchase. You can contact them at 877-…”

A VIP Customer Service Experience — Or Not

I had no idea that our tickets were VIP. It wasn’t like we had backstage passes. I guess it was because they weren’t in the nosebleed section. But if they were VIP, couldn’t I get a little VIP service here and now?

“Ugh, the show is tonight,” I type back. “Can’t we get these as mobile tickets?”

“I can not make any changes. You would have to contact them. I apologize.”

I sigh. “Ok, I’ll call them,” I type with resignation.

“No problem. Do you have any further questions?”

“No. That’s kind of the pressing issue.”

“Have a great day!”

Seriously? I assume that’s part of a canned script the rep was required to type. Or a bot automatically injected it.

I can imagine someone programming a conversation template far away, completely disconnected from an actual, real customer in distress, thinking that was the appropriate sign off for any occasion.

But not what someone with empathy and freewill would say in those circumstances.

I hit the upper-right “X” icon to close the chat window.

I dial the “VIP” phone number.

It rings. And gets picked up. Another voicebot assures me that my call is very important and puts me on hold for the next available representative. Musak from the Milquetoast Orchestra plays. Interrupted 30 seconds later by the same message: the next available representative will be with me.

It’s an infinite loop: Musak for 30 seconds. “Next available rep.” Musak for 30 seconds. “Next available rep.” No wait time. No queue number. Just the loop, looping.

As a company that sells tickets to the hottest concerts, I find myself wondering why they couldn’t have better music accompanying my endless stay in purgatory.

Over 20 minutes go by. If we were going to make it to the show, we’d have to leave soon.

And then someone comes on the line! My heart races faster. I quickly explain the situation. She asks for my order number. And then for the last four digits of my credit card, which I’ve now proudly recovered from an old receipt.

“We can print new tickets for you, and you can pick them up at the box office.”

I breathe a giant sigh of relief. “Thank you!”

“You’ll simply need to present a picture ID and the credit card you used to purchase the tickets with.”

That giant breath of relief catches in my throat. I explain that, well, I don’t have that card anymore, because my bank issued me a new one, because of some other merchant’s data breach, which happens all the time to people, so surely there’s some other means of verification I can provide, right? Right?

There’s a pause on the other end of the line. “All I can suggest is that you explain that to the representative at the box office.”

My turn to pause, to consider the implication of that indeterminate answer. “So, we could drive all the way to the concert, but without that credit card there’s a chance we won’t actually be able to get the tickets?”

Another pause. “You can try telling them the last four digits and see if they’ll accept that.”

Try. See if. I’m mentally calculating the odds of convincing the person at the box office, running through different ways I might be able to authenticate my purchase. My new credit card? Bank statement? Printed receipt? Both my driver’s license and my passport as double ID? I realize I have no idea what the odds are with any of them.

“Is there anything else I can help you with?”

I resist the urge to make a snarky reply. “No, thank you.” At least she doesn’t cheerfully tell me to have a great day.

The Last Hope of Face-to-Face Customer Service

It’s been two hours since I went down this rabbit hole. It’s time to leave, as we’ve got an hour-long car ride ahead of us, with uncertainty hanging over the entire trip.

When we arrive, we make a beeline to the box office. In an attempt to preempt a request for my non-existent credit card, I hand my driver’s license to the person behind the window, “Picking up tickets for Brinker.”

He hunts around for a couple of minutes. Doesn’t find anything. I cringe. “What’s your order number?” Luckily, that’s one of the ten pieces of documentation I’d carried with me. I give him the number.

He goes to the back to tap away on a terminal, while I lean in and hold my breath.

He returns with my driver’s license and three tickets and passes them through the window.

It’s possibly one of the most euphoric moments of my life. “Thank you!” I exclaim in joy. I take the tickets and hastily leave before any question about a credit card comes up.

I don’t know if he screwed up by not asking for my card. Maybe he used his best judgment that with my ID, order number, and my wife and daughter standing next to me that I was probably not scamming my way into a Taylor Swift concert. Either way, I’d nominate him for employee of the year.

We enter the arena. And from that moment on, it’s a fantastic evening. A truly stunning show.

Taylor Swift Concert — Finally

A Few Takeaways to Avoid “Bad Blood”

A couple of weeks later, I found myself reflecting on this experience and decided to write this post. It wasn’t a horror story. In the end, Ticketmuster resolved the problem, and we enjoyed a great show. But, man, what a stressful afternoon that was.

And bots and automation didn’t help. They only added to my frustration.

So a few recommendations that I’d humbly offer when designing a customer experience with bots and automation in your toolbox:

  1. If you’re going to set expectations in email (“View Tickets”), fulfill them.
  2. In your voice automation system, please, let distressed callers reach an operator.
  3. Make sure your phone teams and chatbot/live chat teams are staffed for demand.
  4. Connect your systems so that whatever channel a customer reaches you on — phone, live chat — you can apply the same levers for resolving their problem.
  5. Less templated scripts (“have a great day!”), more human empathy.
  6. Customer experience flows should cover predictable exceptions (e.g., canceled card).
  7. Labels (“VIP”) don’t matter. Words don’t matter (“your call is very important to us” on hold for the next 20 minutes). What you do matters.

There was no justifiable reason why my problem couldn’t have been resolved over the chatbot. Or by connecting with an operator on my original call. When you make your internal divisions and processes my customer experience, it’s not organizational capital. It’s organizational debt.

Martech can’t automagically fix that.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Scott Brinker
Scott Brinker is the president & CTO of ion interactive, a leading provider of post-click marketing software and services. He writes the Conversion Science column on Search Engine Land and frequently speaks at industry events such as SMX, Pubcon and Search Insider Summit. He chairs the marketing track at the Semantic Technology Conference. He also writes a blog on marketing technology, Chief Marketing Technologist.


  1. Great post Scott. I could feel the tension building as you told the story so well. I work for an ombudsman service and complaints about poor customer service are unfortunately common. We don’t do enough to ‘really’ consider the customer journey with our policies, processes and systems.

  2. What a wonderful story! Thanks, Scott. Your poignant post makes a valuable point–if you are going to supplement a customer experience with high tech, it had better include thoughtful high touch. I keep thinking about that steel driving man, John Henry, who won the race with technology but died in the end. As customer experience professionals, we need to remain ever vigilant for technology getting the upper hand over the people side of service. You make a great point that we should work together—people and technology. Because, when the “Hal” side of the equation (a la 2001: A Space Odyssey) wins, we all lose. Great work!

  3. the more frustrating thing is to explain the same problem multiple times to different people or channels as they don’t have a clue who is calling.

  4. Great/agonizing blog! (Highly relatable to me as a father of a 7-year-old music lover!)

    I attended the Gartner CX Technology Summit in London this Spring and one of the speakers talked about how some companies/industries don’t actually need to invest in CX because no matter how poorly they treat their customers it doesn’t impact the bottom line. His example was United Airlines (a month or 2 after dragging a passenger by the heels kicking & screaming off an airplane their stock value rebounded and was flying higher than ever). Sadly, “Ticketmuster” is probably another example of this.

  5. Hi Scott: I enjoyed reading your blog – not for schadenfreude, but for commiseration. In February, 2018, I had a similarly aggravating ticket buying experience, and wrote about it in a blog, Fandango’s VIP Club Inspires No Loyalty. Our experiences and observations are uncannily similar. At the end of the article, I included a list of recommendations for Fandango, no extra charge. I haven’t heard from Fandango, but then again, I haven’t bought any more movie tickets from them, either. Here’s the link to my article:

  6. Love the post. I’m a process person and while reading the article, I was making mental notes where the entire process was breaking down. So basic yet many are not getting it. Before jumping into automation, RPA or whatever one chooses to call it, get the processes right and that includes if any part of the processes were to break down, contingencies including use of empathy and service recovery strategies.

  7. Today, what you’ve described is an all-too-frequent occurrence. I experienced much the same thing early this Summer when buying baseball tickets to a Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. When there are snafus in the ordering process or system, you know you’re in for trouble. Dealing with machines and other forms of electronic support has all the feel of a Pyrrhic victory – if you persevere, you get what you want, but you’ve expended so much time and energy that the ‘prize’ has barely been worth the effort. It’s a cold reality of our AI world.

  8. When the purpose of technology is to improve a client or prospect’s experience, and it is well executed, it works. When the purpose of technology is to take cost out of the business, and risk the client or prospect’s experience, it is almost always a disaster. Scott’s experience reminds me of how one company can perfect service while another fails. I live near Clemson University and frequent a Chick-fil-a there. Almost every time I visit the parking lot is full and the drive through is crowded – yet they provide excellent service including saying “my pleasure” when you thank them rather than the more typical “your welcome”. Right next door there is another giant fast food company – the parking lot is almost always half-empty. Whether you are buying tickets or a sandwich, it is possible to find great service and mediocre service. Vote with your wallet.


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