Before Portugal entered the EU, consumer protection was not of a high standard. Whatever you purchased, once you were outside the store’s door, you were on your own. Any complaint or defect, the answer was always, you must contact the manufacturer directly, we are not responsible. The EU changed all that (they do get some things right!).

The EU makes it very clear, whoever you paid for the product or service, they are responsible. They must take it up with the manufacturer, not you. Extra protection has been added, most stores will change or refund anything you have bought, without the need to explain, within 15 days. Some have now voluntarily increased that to 30 days.

The retail industry have got it right

It’s very rare for any retail outlet to dispute your rights. Normally they are very helpful. The only problems I have had has been with websites, FNAC told me they were not responsible for a defective product, although I had paid them not the manufacturer. FNAC had also issued the receipt, there really wasn’t any argument, but they refused to help. Amazon tried the same thing once, but as soon as I pointed out to the assistant what the law said, they immediately changed their minds and resolved the problem. Their initial argument was that the Amazon time period for refund had been exceeded. The law says otherwise, you have two years.

The moral of this is to stand up for your rights, but normally you won’t have to, at least not in Portugal. I have had a few occasions to need repairs, but without any issues or problems. I have found Worten to have outstanding customer service. Within the statutory guarantee period they will replace, repair or refund without any ‘issues’. I only mention them as I have had very good experience with their service, but other retailers are also following not just the law but doing so with good will and an impressive attitude towards customer service.

I believe it’s fair to say that face to face customer service in Portugal is of a very high standard. The problems start with customer service by telephone.

The chat bots are coming

The call centre industry say that their problem is a lack of staff. It’s a job not many want to do. That may or may not be true, but the reality is that companies who interact with their clients by phone want to reduce the assistance of ‘real’ people and save on staff. This is nothing new, we have been booking airline tickets via the web for a long time, and for the most part it works very well. You will need quite a long memory to remember going to an airlines office or waiting while they wrote out a ticket. With the advance of technology there is little you can’t do online from reserving your seat, requesting a special meal or checking in. The same goes for hotels, when did you last speak to someone about a reservation?

The problem comes when you actually need to speak to someone to assist with whatever you need, be it a complaint or a special need. For a long time contacts have been by email only, and they may, or may not, be answered.

By next year only 25% of contact will be via voice

The call centre industry predicts that by 2023, only 25 percent of customer interactions will be via voice. Already between 2015 and 2020, the level of automation used in web chat increased from 5 percent to 22 percent. This percentage is expected to keep growing.

Chat bots are taking over, and their favourite response is ‘I am sorry I didn’t understand that, can you say it again’, (and again, and again), until you slam the phone down in disgust.

Even the wildest imagination cannot call this customer service. It’s worth repeating, not least because it’s a shocking statistic, by next year it is predicted only 25 percent of your calls to any sort of customer service will be answered by a human being.

The contact centre industry says ‘chat bots can initiate conversation with a customer before passing it on to an agent, who then handles the call further. The bot can acquire relevant information about the customer, shorten wait times and makes the customer feel valued and important. When the requests are simple, bots can solve them better and quicker than humans’. Nonsense!

They are (not) doing this for your benefit

They say, ‘AI is also used to help streamline contact centre experiences with predictive analytics, which can benefit both agents and customers. Predictive analyses make the customer journey run more smoothly, it reduces waiting time and resolves the issues more quickly’.

It sounds good, but the reality is that few of us can get past the chat bot, who is a long way from intelligent.

I especially liked this industry statement ‘European companies increasingly emphasise self-service problem solving information on their websites, which reduces call volume and other direct customer contact, thus reducing costs. This also has advantages for customers, who get a positive feeling from solving a problem by themselves’.

Please note, they are doing this so you get a positive feeling by solving the problem yourself. If you believe that, you will believe anything. The simple reality is that this is just PR garbage aimed to make you think they are doing you a favour.

You have alternatives

Phone based customer service is descending into chaos as staff are reduced and technology such as chat bots are supposed to take over. It’s going to get worse. Support the companies that will give you face to face service or a real person to talk to.

Vote the chat bots out before they take over, they are a liability we can all do without. Find companies that will give you personal service. Hotels want you to book online, but that’s not for your benefit, they just want to avoid paying a travel agent commission. I recently booked some travel with a local travel agent, personal help, knowledge, and someone to speak to. So much easier. Insurance, you don’t have to buy online, or at the bank, there will be an insurance agent near at hand. Whatever you need, support the smaller companies who will give you personal service and give the call centres and chat bots a big miss. Vote with your feet.