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Jewish World Review Feb. 13, 2001/ 20 Shevat 5761

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Consumer Reports


Oh, for the sweet strains of 'How can I help you?'

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
FORGET "going postal." I'm going Micron. Amex. Amazon. USAirways. I'm going ballistic, bananas, bat-baloney over electronic telephone-answering devices while I wait to make actual voice contact with an actual human being.

I can't take it anymore! I want my assault weapon, and I want it now!

Oh, sorry, I was just venting. Forgive me. Nothing personal. It's just that I've reached the end of my frayed mental rope. I dread having to call anyone these days -- to question a bill, discuss a payment, change a reservation, complain about a faulty product or even report a leaky faucet.

No one, it seems, is unimportant enough to post a human at the telephone. I'm desperate for a heartbeat.

Owing to which, I've developed telephone aversion. The thought of having to make a call tempts my hand toward the Valium drawer. The very act of "dialing," as it were, produces panic as I face having to sift through voices, make numerical selections, listen to bad music, only to be transferred by the first human to yet another department where Electronic Hell begins all over again.

Is this any way to run a business?

No, but it's a sure way to drive a nation mad.

I seem to recall vaguely when receptionists first were replaced by electronic gadgets and forwarding devices. At the time, it must have seemed like a giant evolutionary step -- sort of like agriculture -- that would save money and put underemployed humans to better use. Today I picture large offices populated with smartly dressed computers that make human jokes while forwarding annoying callers from one station to the next.

You know the routine. You dial the number for, say, "Technical Assistance." A voice welcomes you, then asks you to select from the "Following Options," reminding you that what follows may be recorded for "Quality Assurance."

After five or six selections, during which Mr. and Ms. Machine doubtless are amusing each other with virtual laughing and winking, you (the human) are handed off to another human who seems sincerely apologetic, probably because she's equally relieved to make human contact.

Usually, however, I apologize first. "I'm sorry you got me," I tell them right off, "because I've been holding this phone for 15 minutes, and I'm an unstable, unhappy, homicidal maniac."

During a recent two-month-long "discussion" with a computer company, which cleverly sent me a new computer that still doesn't work, I got a female techie on the other end and took this as my cue to break down and bond.

"I don't know how men handle this kind of frustration," I say, "but I'm about to burst into tears."

"Here's what I'm going to do," she said maternally. "I'm going to give you my name and my direct number so you can reach me any time you need me. This usually calms women down."

She was right. As soon as I jotted down her name, "Anne," I was instantly soothed. When I tried to call back the next day, "Anne" was an electronic voice at a non-human's extension.

All of which prompts me to make the following suggestion to Business, whoever you are:

Forget streamlining, downsizing, electronic dialoguing. If you want to hog a market niche, put a human being into the front office and give customers a break from electronic roulette.

Give us a real voice to utter those five little words we long to hear: "How can I help you?"

For my money, a little "Hon'" on the end wouldn't be wasted.


JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.

Up

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