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Umbrage Against the Machine -- The Return of Humans

Up with people!

As humans, we crave contact with one another. From tiny newborn babies who need their mothers, to the elderly who long for their children, throughout all stages of our lives, we reach for each other. It’s always been this way. Technology can’t replace the very thing that makes us human.

Many years ago, I was left to care for my dad, who had early-stage Alzheimer’s. One of the first things I had to do was take away his car, as his driving had become dangerous. This was difficult. My Dad was a “car guy,” and he had taught me everything I know about cars — it was a love we shared together. Taking away his car left him incredibly isolated; he would try to call his friends during the day, only to be confused by answering machines that sounded like humans. Sometimes, Dad would even call companies who sent him bills, claiming he had questions, but really, I think he just wanted to reach out to another person. Again, he was foiled by the machines who told him to press 1 for this, and press 2 for that, always finding ways to keep him from connecting with an actual human.

As a response to this, I started GetHuman, a website that allows customers to call real people at big companies without having to wait on the line or go through a million robots. Today, receives millions of visitors a month, helping people with customer service issues at places like Verizon and Comcast.

The intersection of human contact and customer service has reemerged often in my career in technology, and while companies change, the theme remains.

The intersection of human contact and customer service has reemerged often in my career in technology, and while companies change, the theme remains. As the CTO and co-founder of Kayak, I managed all the customer emails for the first few months. I would relay a lot of issues to our engineers, but so much is lost via email that eventually I found a bright-red phone with a loud mechanical ringer, put it on my desk, and put its phone number on Kayak’s help pages.

It was a remarkable experience to get to talk with customers directly. It made me sharper, and I began to think that many of our meetings were too often theoretical — and, frankly, a waste of time. Why sit in a board room when, on other end of the red phone were customers with real-time problems and invaluable feedback? Marketing departments have budgets to find and talk to such users — but I found that by letting customers phone engineers directly, you short-circuit the entire process and get primary research conducted, for free. As an entrepreneur, customer service has always been the most gratifying part of my day — and it should be an important priority for other entrepreneurs to make that direct, human-to-human connection.

Throughout my career, I’ve heard the same issue over and over again: People find travel really difficult, and a bit scary, when they have to fend for themselves. Even some of my most well-traveled friends fret about pulling the trigger on a hotel or a flight. The “do-it-yourself” travel sites (including the very one I had created, Kayak) have failed to decrease the stress and the time it takes to book, plan and manage travel. I’ve come to realize that people don’t want to see 500 hotel results for a town they’ve never been to. They want a real, live human to talk them through which option makes the most sense for their exact trip.

At Lola, a new travel company I created earlier this year, we are bringing humans back into the equation by hiring a team of travel experts to take care of everything for you. We’re creating the next generation of customer care. And although technology can sometimes be used to replace humans, and may make lives a little easier, I think the most exciting uses of technology today are when it’s used to facilitate interactions — and to strengthen interactions — between real people.

Paul English is the co-founder and CEO of Lola, a mobile app that connects users instantly to a team of travel professionals who can help plan, book and manage travel. Previously, English was the co-founder of Kayak and Boston Light Software (sold to Intuit); co-founder of Intermute (sold to Trend Micro); SVP engineering and product management at Interleaf. He is also a part-time lecturer at MIT. Reach him @englishpaulm.

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