Do you do know the difference between administrative work and gruntwork? Administrative work primarily consists of entering data and maintaining records, a task that doesn’t require decision making as much as it does following directions. Gruntwork is often tedious, repetitive, and lacks glamour, but still requires at least a small amount of skill or decision-making ability. Computers can only successfully replace one type of worker we just mentioned, which means if you work an administrative job, prepare for unemployment.
The Problem with Admin Work
I admit my recent interaction at the California DMV inspired this post. I’m not writing this to pick on the DMV; it was just the perfect catalyst to begin a discussion about the impact of automation in the workforce. My particular experience happens to be the perfect example of problems plaguing administrative work, and are the driving forces behind corporations pushing out more employees in favor of artificial intelligence and automated kiosks.
Humans tend to be okay with a lack of perfection, and when it comes to administrative work, that’s a problem. When someone calls someone else a “perfectionist,” it usually carries a negative connotation with it, implying a certain amount of annoyance with their inability to let things slide between the cracks. When your job primarily consists of maintaining and updating of records, which administration jobs do, organizations strive for perfection; something humans can’t deliver.
While computers will refuse to move to the next step of a process without proper verification, humans tend to find ways to complete processes that they shouldn’t always complete. In my case, I wanted to change the address on a drivers license that I had recently lost. A process that started smoothly, but went south because of a common problem when dealing with humans – Improper Verification
The first step in all administrative work is verification for eligibility. Whether you’re ordering food, calling into customer service, or applying for a car loan, there’s always some form of verification. McDonald’s takes your payment before preparing your food, agents verify your identity before discussing confidential information, and financiers run your credit before giving you a loan. All of the previously mentioned actions serve as verification of eligibility. The DMV is no different.
As a patron of the DMV, I had followed all the verification steps required to speak to a window agent.
– I checked in at the front desk.
– I completed the form to get my confirmation number.
– I returned to the front to get my service number.
– I waited patiently for my number to be called.
When they called my number, I approached the counter, the agent asked for my printed paperwork and began processing the request without asking any questions.
Everything appeared to be going smoothly as the final paperwork began printing, and after confirming its accuracy, I signed it. Then the agent finally asks, “what were you changing on your license?” “My address,” I replied. After quickly checking the address on my previous license, she explains it’s impossible to change my address to without a piece of mail displaying my new address.
I wondered how this could happen. There were plenty of opportunities for someone to catch a mistake in the verification process.
– There was a human at the door, who I explained to in detail the purpose of my visit. They handed me a form with checkboxes that could verify the documentation requirements, but didn’t ask about or mention that I needed any of them.
– There was another person at the testing center who I specifically called over to my kiosk to ask about my situation. They explained the need for me to select “replacement” from the drop-down menu to address the situation accurately, generated my confirmation number, and moved me along.
– Then there was the window agent, who didn’t ask any questions until the final step of the interaction. Upon realizing the error, I was sure I would be handed back my paperwork and told to return when I had the proper documentation. Instead, they reverted the information on the form to my old address and completed the request. There’s only one way this could happen – Inadequate Training
If I were on a computer, this would have never happened. A web designer would have placed a checkbox next to the change of address field that would have required me to upload the required number of documents (PDF or JPEG) to the website before continuing to the next step. Instead, a government employee just agreed to send my government ID to an outdated address, with obsolete information, well-knowing the requirements for this kind of document. I had just completed a process in a way that was detrimental to myself and the State of California. How?
As with all large organizations, a lack of a scalable training solution is most likely the culprit. Properly training employees is an expensive endeavor that doesn’t produce an objective return on investment dollars, and it is impossible to scale without serious investment. Taking the previous factors into consideration, it’s easy to see why organizations consider replacing employees with machines. They have a fixed cost of operation, accurately perform their tasks regardless of emotional factors, and have a positive effect on the company’s bottom line.
As someone who works at a company that specializes in digital learning solutions for situations like these, I was interested in seeing how poorly the system was constructed. The easiest way to confirm a lack of employee training is with the third problem that arises from humans performing administrative work – Dissemination of Misinformation
Dissemination of Misinformation
To rectify the situation, I went home and did some research on the California DMV’s website, which wasn’t overly specific about the process, but provided me with most of what I needed. I knew I needed address verification documents, and since I was told that a leasing agreement would work, I made the poor assumption one document would do the trick. I then jumped by back in my car to do the unthinkable, make a second trip to the DMV in a single day. This time I was going with the intention of understanding what methods are available to fix this situation.
Upon arrival, I stopped at the same checkpoint designed to provide the first line of verification. After explaining my situation in detail again, the employee did a very noble thing, admitted they didn’t know the answer but committed to finding one for me. Great. They left for about five minutes, and while still in view, I saw them have a lengthy conversation with a person who seemed like they were very knowledgeable. They returned with a particular set of instructions:
– Return to the specific window where you were helped [because they had previously taken my money]
– Have them void the application
– Resubmit the application
I was surprised by the confidence in the solution, and I walked right over to window 27 to have it done. When I reached the window, it was a different story. I handed the agent the instructions, and they immediately seemed frustrated. They asked aloud, “Why would they send you back here when they know I’ll need their codes to do this?” I thought to myself; at least it can be done.
The agent disappeared for a couple of minutes and returned with bad news; I need two pieces of mail to complete the process. Considering they were the person that told me a single document, the leasing agreement, would suffice, I thought the newfound reasoning was strange. When I explained my concern, the agent left again for about five minutes, this time returning with a different answer. The number of documents was no longer the issue, I had to wait until I received the card before I can change the address. Again, strange considering their website displays a specific note that reads:
“If you have applied for a REAL ID Compliant driver license or identification card and not received your card, you must visit a DMV field office, complete a Change of Address (DMV 14) form, and present proof of residency to change your address.”
I’m just a simple man that follows directions, which I was doing, so I was beginning to get frustrated. The situation seemed to be turning towards one where I perceived my request was too inconvenient, and no one wanted to provide the level of “customer service” required to resolve the situation. Which brings us to the heart of the problem -Customer Service is Expensive
Customer Service is Expensive
What we all perceive as customer services is a series of steps designed to resolve human errors that arise from improper verification steps, inadequate training, and misinformation. Somewhere along the way, a mistake was made. It might be on the customer’s side or the vendor’s side. Either way, how disputes are resolved determines how people view your brand. More importantly, they determine the value we place on the people responsible for interacting on an organization’s behalf.
When people perceive their time or money is being wasted, they’re unlikely to place a high value on the people with whom they interact, or on the services, they provide. When this happens, people are no longer an asset for an organization and become a detractor. When enough people are viewed as detractors, organizations have to decide if human interactions are worth the time and money they consume.
Ultimately, we question the value of humans every time they don’t tell us we’ve signed up for a trial service, or are getting an introductory price. We want better technology every time we lose our phones, and the person at the store won’t transfer our contacts because we aren’t buying anything. We want people fired when they open fake accounts to hit management quotas. Every time an employee does what’s easy, instead of what’s right, they are one step closer to losing their job to a machine.