Press 1 to Read This Column. Press 2 to Be Confused and Frustrated

We’ve all been met with that seemingly impenetrable wall of technology whenever we call a large business.

That press-1-for-this and press-2-for-that maze.

The old we’ve-recently-changed-our-menu thing.

Then there’s the classic we’re-experiencing-a-higher-call-volume-than-normal cliché that lasts for years and is probably just a cover for layoffs.

(Bell’s been broadcasting that last one since 2003, which makes me wonder what the company even considers normal.)

What’s unfortunately become normal to us, of course, is the seeming fact that humans don’t answer phones any more.

Instead, our earnest attempts at communication are met with a technical barricade that’s been erected to frustrate us away from any sort of meaningful discourse with The Corporation.

These fortifications are most maddening when our need to talk to a real human is crucial and timely. Then the wall becomes truly unscalable and we desperately feel around for a door by repeatedly pounding the 0 key.

“You’ve pressed an incorrect key…” chimes back the robot. Then: “We’re sorry you’re having trouble. Good-bye.” Click.

Good-bye? Are you serious? Good-bye? You really don’t want to help me sort out this problem?

Telephone fortifications aside, corporate web sites also seem designed to foil attempts at direct contact.

I’ve spent too much time unsuccessfully digging through web sites for a phone number or email address that might put me in touch with a real human.

Each page loads like a linebacker’s block trying to put me on my ass.

The message: talk to the hand. Or, in contemporary parlance, the web. We don’t want to hear from you.

I suppose the premise that supports these annoying agents of technology is that they save money.

Perhaps that’s true. But I wonder how much it costs a company when everything goes wrong?

I experienced this the other day when I attempted to become a Solo Mobile customer.

I called the number advertised on their web site. The robot at the other end informed me that Solo’s offices were closed. Solo Mobile is open Monday to Friday from 8:30 am to 9:00 pm.

That didn’t make a lot of sense. I was calling at 3 pm on a Wednesday.

The robot offered me the opportunity to leave a voice message. Unfortunately, when I tried to do this, the robot told me that Solo Mobile’s voice mailbox was full.

Back to the web.

I had noticed a callback button on their site. If I can’t call them, maybe they’ll call me.

The callback button was broken.

More for a lark than anything, I tried to purchase a phone online.

Not surprisingly, Solo Mobile’s online shopping cart was broken, too.

Oh well, when all else fails, there’s always email. (At this point I just wanted to see how bad it could get.)

Solo’s web site doesn’t offer a direct email address, but they do have a “Contact Us” form. So I filled it out and submitted it.

I instantly received an email that stated, “…all the information contained in your message was lost.”

There was a real email address in that message so I explained my experience to it.

The next day I received a polite response that blamed the whole fiasco on Bell, Solo’s parent company.

For obvious reasons, I chose not to become a customer of Solo Mobile.

But it didn’t have to be this way.

What if, rather than build this wall of technology between me and the people who (presumably) work at Solo Mobile, they’d just had a real, live human pick up the phone when I called?

Instead of being thwarted by a broken robot machine I probably would have bought a phone and signed a contract.

Too often technology is presumed to be the default correct response to a modern communications problem.

But in situations that demand absolute infallibility and offer potentially complex interactions, the human response is a better one.

In John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, a race of New People has evolved out of the nuclear holocaust exactly because they have developed an expansive communications system that’s something like telepathy.

The New People blame the “Tribulation” on the Old People (that’s us) in part because of their inability to communicate effectively.

No doubt defensive telephone systems and web sites were at the heart of that dysfunctional world.

Just imagine the one-minute-to-midnight call from the White House to the Kremlin that sent the missiles flying:

Добро пожаловать в Кремле. Нажмите 1 для мира во всем мире, нажмите 2 для запуска ракет.

For our sake, when President Obama calls up Prime Minister Putin I hope he just answers the damn phone.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, September 18, 2009.

2 thoughts on “Press 1 to Read This Column. Press 2 to Be Confused and Frustrated

  1. Don’t forget Andrew about the “press the pound key to spell the person’s last name in the company directory” when the name is one that isn’t pronounceable, let alone spellable.

    On the other hand, I don’t know which is worse. The automated telephone receptionist or the one who’s so busy that you don’t get a chance to even say hello when a live person answers, IdentifiesTheCompanyAndSaysHoldPlease. And then makes you wait for a couple minutes to even get a chance to speak…

    Perhaps it’s time to actually start dealing with local people in person?


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