Good luck getting a human on the line

Jim Redwine

Lily Tomlin’s character, telephone operator Ernestine on the TV show Laugh-In, set the standard for bad telephone service. Laugh-In was on NBC from 1969-1973. In 2022, life has overcome art. At least Ernestine was human. Today, robots and recorded messages insulate businesses from the needs of customers. Good luck on getting through a telephone “menu” to speak with someone who will admit a company’s responsibility for poor service.

Things were bad enough before COVID-19 and our current no-one-ever-goes-in-to-work society. But after more than two years of encouraging everyone to avoid contact with anyone, many people apparently see any request for service as a borderline criminal assault.

It has been a while since I looked at a college course catalogue, but I suspect some schools must be offering a major, online of course, in how to prevent anyone from accessing a service. Perhaps one can pursue a Ph.D. in telephone menu construction. A favorite ploy is to have a recorded answering service that starts off with, “Please listen carefully because our options have recently changed.”

We all know that’s not only demeaning but is also almost certainly untrue. The only changes any company ever makes to its phone options is to obfuscate them further until we despair of ever getting to speak to a human being.

The days of simply punching “0” to hear a non-mechanical voice are long gone. Now the R2-D2 robot used to add layers of dross instead of answers to our questions, directs us to some website once we exhaust the non-access menu options. Of course, should we fall into the Inferno of a company’s website, we had better not be susceptible to thoughts of self-harm and should avoid having any sharp objects within reach.

It is a telling fact that Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) who patented the first practical telephone would not have a phone in his study because it interrupted his work. Bell set the standard toward which all contemporary companies strive; the elimination of any telephone conversations at all. I suppose I should not mention this possibility.

Is it not strange that in a world where even grade schoolers have iPhones and teenagers text the person right beside them that we cannot get anyone to answer the darn phone! Of course, some of the worst, that is, most obnoxious offenders of the “never answer a customer’s query” policy are the government agencies we pay with our tax money to ignore us. Do such “services” as the IRS and VA come to mind?

On a related topic, can we talk about telephone etiquette in general? I suggest if a politician or a political party wishes to up their poll numbers, they pay attention to basic phone courtesy and re-teach the phone manners our parents demanded. You remember, Gentle Reader. Do not call someone and start with, “Is this James?” Begin by identifying who you are and why you are calling. Call only at a decent hour and never during a football game. If you get an answering machine, leave a clear message and a return number by speaking slowly and distinctly. In other words, treat phone contacts as you would in-person contacts and that includes companies and agencies we need to access for services. And by the way, “Thank you and goodbye”