Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

It Used to Stand for Operator. Now '0' Means, Oh, I'm Stuck in Another Automated Phone System Maze

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

It Used to Stand for Operator. Now '0' Means, Oh, I'm Stuck in Another Automated Phone System Maze

Article excerpt

IT STARTS INNOCENTLY enough. You pick up the phone to call a department store, a bank, or an airline. But instead of a person, you get a perky recorded voice instructing you to "please listen carefully." Your heart sinks. Oh, no - another "menu of options."

You listen, but no option quite describes the department or information you're seeking. You call back, listen again, and finally press 0 for operator, although that may not be offered as an option. And even if you knew the right number to press last week, it could be different this week. Changing menus is a popular corporate pastime.

As Charlie Brown would say, "Aargh."

Who could have imagined, five or 10 years ago, how quickly the telephone operator, that faithful, welcoming voice at the other end of a corporate line, would fade into near-obscurity, done in by automated phone systems? Instead of Ernestine, Lily Tomlin's beloved operator, computerized voices on voice-response systems chirp robotically, calling themselves Simon, Claire, or Julie.

A friend in New York tells of calling Amtrak for schedules to Hudson, N.Y. But "Julie," the railroad's disembodied agent, couldn't quite understand Hudson. "Did you say Hinton, W.Va.?" she asked. No. Julie apologized: "My mistake." My friend repeated Hudson, and Julie offered another town. Wrong again. Exasperated, my friend called back for a real live agent. Success!

If even those with college degrees and a measure of technological savvy are bamboozled by phone menus and voice-activated systems, what happens to callers from generations whose skills are primarily low-tech? And what about immigrants whose command of English can't keep up with the rapid-fire instructions to press 1 for this and 3 for that?

One community agency in the Midwest that serves homeless people instructs callers to press "star 8" - or is it "8 star"? - before (or did they say after?) dialing an extension. Imagine being a caller in great need, perhaps standing on a street corner at a pay phone, trying to divine the mysteries of messages like this.

Increasingly, you can't get there from here, telephonically. Automated systems form an invisible protective shield between the customer and the company. …

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