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Your Call is Important to Us

Candidates for president are nattering about a failing economy, national defense, and the cost of health care.

Not one of them has addressed the single issue most likely to collapse our society: recorded telephone menus, by which companies avoid talking to their customers, and governments dodge their constituents.

“Your call is important to us, although we really don’t care for you.”

Think about the real implications of Hillary Clinton’s recent campaign commercial involving a 3 a.m. phone call to the White House. Suppose that Al Qaida attacked Los Angeles. Or suppose that George W. Bush, out of office, gathered up an army of right-wing zealots and invaded Vermont.

Anyone who called to report the threat might hear something like this:

“You have reached the White House. Para continuar en español, presione cinco. We’re sorry, but no one is available to take your call right now. However, your opinion is important to us. Please leave a message. If you are a disgruntled Republican, press one. If you are a disgruntled Democrat, press two.

“If this is an emergency, hang up and dial nine-one-one. Or, you may find the help you need on our website….”

In February, one entry-level federal employee actually picked up a telephone and answered it. She was subsequently transferred from Boston to a field office in Travesty, Texas, near the strife-torn border with Oklahoma. She was assigned a desk without a telephone.

“Menu” is derived from the Spanish “menudo,” meaning a delicacy that includes tripe–the stomach lining of ruminants. It takes a lot of guts to give your constituents a permanent runaround.

I’m sure that corporations justify these devious digital labyrinths because they reduce labor costs. And some of them work wonderfully well; I have a fine relationship with a recorded voice at my bank.

But I wonder how much money they really save, and whether any institution has ever analyzed the savings, versus the aggravation to customers.

In every institution where I have worked, or been confined, there were live humans who could quickly answer simple questions. Now I envision empty corporate buildings, manned only by telephone machines.

Most menu options are not relevant to my needs. I don’t need for a utililty company to show me how to encrypt a banana.

Last summer, I had a simple question to ask the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento: Did I need a reservation to ride on an excursion train?

I found the museum’s phone number on its website, and was led into a menu where every option I chose led me to another option. The menu led me around the mulberry bush, and I quickly arrived back at the main menu, where I had started.

I had not yet talked to a live being. I tried the number for the California state parks department, which was similar to the museum’s menu. No, I didn’t want to visit General Vallejo’s house in Sonoma, or the William Randolph Hearst mansion at San Simeon. Been there.

To say that I was frustrated at this point would be plain silly. I fired off a snotty e-mail to the parks department, asking if anyone worked there.

Within minutes, a nice person e-mailed me the phone numbers of two people who worked at the museum. The first number led me to yet another menu. But a live woman answered my second call. It took me a second or two to remember what my question was.

That was my one triumph. Recently, I wanted to talk to a computer salesman who works forty miles away from me. He had seemed knowledgeable, but I could not penetrate the menu at the store where he works.

Relying on age and guile, I found a number on the Internet that promised to help me locate employees of this company, a national chain.

My call was diverted to a nice chap in eastern Canada, who passed me off to a man in Florida. He was sorry he couldn’t help me, but he transferred me to a man in Delhi. The Indian transferred me to a Filipino in Manila, who gave me the number of the store in Surprise–the phone that no one answers.

I listened to the menu again. Its final option: “If you want to bother our competitors, press two, seven, and then the pound sign, and your call will be transferred to their menu, which is just as pointless as ours.”

I have tried to use the telephone to communicate my concerns to the three surviving presidential candidates. Guess what.

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

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