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It's Tedious Getting Trapped in the Voice Mail Jail

Dealing with call centers and automated systems can be pretty frustrating.

Ring, ring.

"Hello, this is your father speaking. If you're calling for money, press 1 and your mother will get on the line. If you're calling to tell me I'm going to be a grandfather, press 2 and I'll get on the line. If you're calling to say you can't make it for dinner, press 3 with your nose and hang up. If you have a flat tire, call the Triple A."

Ah, the bountiful joys of the automated telephone answering world. There's another annoying aspect to it as well—voicemail, and it gives me an extra-strength Excedrin headache. 

It would be much easier to put a stamp on your tongue and jump into a mailbox. And if I'm faced with this challenge while using my ancient cell phone, I get even more perplexed. I can barely make out those tiny letters on the dial pad. Give me an old rotary dial any day, or even a push-button model.

It seems whatever, and whomever, you call these days you have to run the gauntlet of the touch-tone dial to get information, or any attention at all. This includes relatives, for heaven's sake: "Hi. this is Tiffany I'm, like, busy sorting my shoes. Leave a message and I'll get back to you some day."

I could text her, if I could figure out texting, but then I wouldn't understand all those inane abbreviation texters use. It's no easy task to connect with a living human being rather than a recording. After pressing a myriad of buttons following a massive string of ludicrous options as required, I usually forget what I was calling about in the first place, or who. I usually hang up forcefully. Maybe that's the idea.

Recently, I had to phone a credit card company about an error on my bill. Boy, was that the call from hell. After punching in my card number, expiration date, blood type and hair color (oops, no hair) I was disconnected.  

Maybe it was a bad connection between Bowie and Bangladesh, where most of these "customer service" people seem to be located. Most of these call center people could use a remedial English course from Yorktown Elementary School. I can barely understand what they're saying. I tried in vain to get through to an operator, or service representative as they're laughingly called, but, alas, no luck. I just kept getting more and more recordings telling me to do this or that.

I then told them what to do but there was no one there to hear it, which was probably a good thing. I finally wrote a letter, but I wonder if anyone will ever see it. Maybe they'll sent it to Bangladesh.

I had a friend at an area business complex who I used to call now and then. That was in the pre-automated phone call days. Since his name began with Z, and I could never remember his extension number, I sat for what seemed like an eternity trying to get through.

A name beginning with Z, it appeared, bunged up the system and you had to press something called a star. A star? There was no star on my phone. Oh, it was asterisk. And then you're often told to push the pound sign Huh? What's a pound sign on a phone? It was that little cross-hatch thing at the bottom right of the key pad. Oh.

American medicine being what it is, I can just picture what might happened one day in the future if you're feeling ill and call the doctor. "Press 1 if you have a fever; press 2 if your fever is over 104° press 3 if your pulse is weak; and if you're dead, someone else can press 5 and your call will will be switched to the undertaker".

Of course, if you haven't paid your bill, you'll be electronically disconnected or transferred to the "call center" in Bangladesh. I think I preferred being grilled by officious nurses who treat you as though you smell bad. I had one of those types "caring" for me at an area hospital recently. Oh, what fun. I wanted to choke her. But at least you can glare back and, if you're brave, tell them to sit on a tack, or worse.

There are some luminaries in the city for whom voice mail is a good idea. Mayor Fred Robinson, for instance, could make use of a sophisticated computerized answering system (his cell phone voice mail just doesn't cut it, and people have their calls to His Honor arbitrarily terminated anyway, for some unknown reason.

"You have reached Bowie's mayor for life. If you'd care to leave message to tell me what a wonderful job I'm doing, press 1. If you have a complaint about city services, call the mayor pro-tem . If you want to gripe about city personnel, call the city manager, and if you have any critical comments about my fellow council members, call Denise Mahoney, the assistant to the city manager. It's good to keep her busy... Have a nice day and don't forget to vote for me the next time I'm up for re-election. Oh yes, my wife Jackie is selling Avon products—press 9 and she'll be right over to see you."

Congressman Steny Hoyer is another likely candidate for a voicemail system. Today, if you call his office, you get some snotty kid who doesn't know anything anyway. His system could offer the following options:

"Hi, this is your congressman. If you're calling for a new post office, forget it—they're broke. If you want to call me a liberal fink, press 2. If you're a Republican, hit yourself in the head with the telephone. If you want to make a nice fat donation to my campaign coffers (they never close), press 4 and a car will be dispatched to pick you up and bring you over for lunch. If you are a Bowie TV host and want me to appear on your show, press 5 and my appointments secretary will give you 200 reasons why I can't make it to Bowie."

Although it has certainly improved a bit lately, BGE used to induce migraines in most people in Bowie who lost power as they tried to negotiate the push-button maze. I should note, however, someone here called BGE after the big winds and was told the branches sitting on her electric line would be removed by Tuesday. Days passed, no BGE. The branches blew into a neighbor's yard. Ah, yes, dear BGE.

One critic of this this telephone death-march calls it the voicemail jail. I like that.

Perhaps it's my intrinsic Luddite tendencies, but I want to dial a telephone number and have it answered by a human being who then simply connects you with someone who can help. There are actually some businesses in Bowie which do just that, and I make sure I do business with them.

Maybe that sort of thing is really too simple in a world of iPhones that do everything but seduce you.  Analysts of such esoteric subjects say the voicemail system we know and hate allows companies to dump telephonists and secretaries in favor of 24-hour machines. Maybe.

But voicemail and button-pushing aren't substitutes for good, friendly service. Just ask Bank of America's or BGE's customers. Surely there are a lot of people out there like me who get so annoyed with the frustrations of listening to computerized voices and tapping an endless array of numbers on the phone pad that they they just give up and do business with a firm that has someone actually answer the phone.

These are small companies, of course; the biggies, like Verizon, BGE, the banks—you name it—will never change. And let us not forget the potential injuries to the finger as these prolonged sessions of digit dancing become more and more forceful and one's one anger reaches Valium level. Ouch, there goes the finger.

We don't have a system like that here at Patch—you have to call or e-mail us directly. The entire communications system is Editor Josh Flynn's cell phone. I'm serious. So, call Josh.

If you think voice mail and key punching are bad, wait until it's common (it now exists on computers and fancy cell phones) until two-way video is part of your home phone. Good grief, what a thought!

I'd wager that just might bring back the gentle art of letter writing. If you want to comment on this column, press... Oh, forget it.

John Rouse February 28, 2011 at 01:37 PM
I would like to clarify that the photo in this column is NOT me :-)

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