Online business shouldn’t replace human interaction

Thomas Hummer

In the 2005 Judd Apatow film “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” there’s a brief and memorable scene that takes place in the “We Sell Your Stuff On eBay” store. After Steve Carell’s character leaves, an awkward youngster — played by Jonah Hill — wants to purchase a pair of shoes and is refused by the store’s owner, who only sells the in-store products on eBay.

The humor, of course, comes from the fact that it would be ridiculous to dedicate physical space to something that had to be done via the Internet. After all, that would never happen in real life. Right?

I naively assumed this to be the case, until a friend of mine

told me that he had a similar experience with his bank. “I went in and asked if I could have a personal loan to consolidate my debt,” he said, “and they told me I had to go apply online. I said, ‘Well, I’m here now. Can’t I just apply now, in person?’ They told me I couldn’t and gave me the website where I could fill out the online application.”

Now, I can understand why it’s helpful to have this information available online, but I also figured it would be purely supplemental and possibly a worst-case option for if you can’t get in there and talk to someone in person. To completely replace that service with an online version seems ridiculous.

But this isn’t the only example of the great Internet migration.

Other businesses have also been moving toward modes of operation that include as little human interaction as possible. In restaurants, physical comment cards are becoming rarer while customers are encouraged to write comments online. At least in these situations there’s usually a manager to speak with, but otherwise, the attitude seems to be that nothing is official until it’s documented through the Internet.

We’ve also all experienced the dreaded automated menus on customer service phone calls, some of which never seem to find their way to a real human being. With some companies it’s impossible to tell how far down the rabbit hole of button-pushing you have to go before you’ll hear a human voice. Maybe they just rely on the hope that the caller will get frustrated enough to simply hang up.

The big issue in these situations is the customer’s level of choice. Sometimes you can avoid an awkward situation and save some embarrassment by doing business online, but the option should still be available for the customer to interact with an employee or representative if they want to. Even Walmart hasn’t switched to all self-checkout lanes, and even those have a person on hand to help if something goes wrong.

Another similar example is the FAFSA. While most students opt to fill this out online, there are still offices where you can schedule an appointment with somebody who will help you fill it out, for free.

In general, I see the Internet age as a good thing. It’s great that we’re able to connect with people across the country and even the world. The key to this is that the online world should remain supplemental to the physical realm of human interaction rather than replace it.

When this mode of business is overtaking person-to-person communication rather than reinforcing it, that’s when we have a real problem.