'ZDNET Recommends': What exactly does it mean?
ZDNET's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.
When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNET nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.
ZDNET's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.
I used to do it without thinking.
It always worked perfectly well.
If I had to take a trip abroad, I'd go to the AT&T website.
I'd then buy an international data plan and believe that I wouldn't use more than the number of GB specified.
Why would I expect this time to be any different? Yet suddenly the AT&T site decided I'd become inferior.
It told me that my device wasn't eligible for the international plan. Any international plan, that is.
Also: These are my 5 must-have devices for work travel now
I was a touch thrown. I have an iPhone 12. No, it's not the absolute newest, but it's not the most ancient either. It's served me perfectly well. Why would it suddenly not be able to cope with being in Europe?
Surely this could be easily solved, so, as I was on the site, I clicked on the chat service. Presumably, some fine human would leap to chat with me and sort this whole thing out.
Oh, what was I thinking?
The chat was a robot. It instantly identified that I wanted to buy an international plan and offered me the link to, oh, the very website page I'd just visited. The one that told me my device wasn't eligible.
This was becoming somewhat miffing. I couldn't identify the logic of this manifest absurdity.
So I decided to escalate.
I called AT&T customer service. There, some fine human would leap to chat with me and sort this whole thing out.
Oh, what was I thinking?
The customer service line served up another robot. Which, you'll be delighted to hear, sent me a link to the web page that featured the international plan. The page that told me my device wasn't eligible.
Groundhog Day? More like Grinding My Teeth Day.
Also: What is ChatGPT and why does it matter? Here's what you need to know
I tried to make the robot disappear by repeating the word "representative" over and over again. It didn't work. The robot demanded my passcode.
When I replied in perfectly human terms, the robot claimed it didn't understand me. I verged toward the irate.
"Please go away, dear robot," I howled. "You've been promoted beyond your capabilities. You are, if I might be so bold as to suggest, an utterly pointless halfwit created by bean-counters to encourage customers to go to Verizon."
Look, I paraphrase that quote. This was driving me toward conniptive convulsions.
Suddenly, it was as if the robot identified my screams. Or, rather, understood that it had made me so apopletically volcanic that I ought to be transferred to a human.
This turned out to be no ordinary human. This turned out to be Frank.
I began by praising Frank's existence and explaining the frustrations I'd just experienced. Frank seemed to understand. "Yeah, our roadblocks aren't fun," he said.
I continued to describe my situation and wondered how it could be that my iPhone 12 suddenly didn't qualify for an international plan.
"An iPhone 12? That's brand-new, as far as I'm concerned," said Frank.
He then tried to examine what had happened.
"It looks like you're on an older plan," he said. "That's why it won't let you have the international day plan."
Also: Google Fi: The best phone service for international travel
Naturally, I still didn't understand. Why would the fact that I was on an old plan affect my ability to have an international plan?
Frank wasn't sure either. But then he offered quite magical words: "Let me get you on a better plan and save you some money."
What? I was going to give you more money, Frank. Just to be able to use my phone whenever and wherever I needed to in Europe.
Frank did what only people like Frank can do. Not only did he save me around $20 a month, he also gave me an international plan that was cheaper than I was used to paying on previous trips. I used to pay $120. This plan maxes out at $100.
I thanked Frank with a profusion that bordered on the unseemly. He'd saved me several emotions, quite a bit of time and thrown in a little money.
"When you do customer service calls, they don't always go like this one did," said Frank. "This one was perfect."
I'm sure there's an AT&T robot that'll one day be programmed to say the same. But the gulf between what Frank could do quickly and what the robots did over and over again was vast.
I understand that robots can do many things. I've yet to be convinced that customer service is one of them. There are nuances that a robot can't -- and may never -- grasp. There are problems that robots simply seem incapable of identifying.
Their world is a rational box, a small rational box.
"By the way," said Frank. "The code word to get rid of the robot is agent, not representative."
Well, of course.