Thursday, February 19, 2009

How to get hold of a person

Among the many vital life skills I'm going to have to convey to my poor children before sending them off to live on their own, one that I have had to hammer out for myself (it not having been necessary when I was twenty years old) is this: How do you get past the determination of government agencies and big companies not to let you speak to a real human being?

It's getting ridiculous. I'm going to a conference next summer which requires a passport. I picked up the form at the post office, looked it over, and had a bunch of questions. Like, "When it says 'mother's place of birth,' is state enough, or do I have to know the city?" These are not going to be found in a pre-recorded message. So I call my local post office and get a recorded message saying, "If you need information on passports, hang up and dial ________." So I hang up and dial the number, where I get a recorded phone tree, one branch of which is "information on passports." I (stupidly--I should know better by this time) press that button and get recorded information which is obviously not going to answer my seventeen detailed questions about the application form. So I hang up and try again. This time I refuse to press any of the phone tree options. The phone tree, by the way, is run by a perky-voiced computer. The only way, I discover, to get it to give you a human being is to say something the perky lady computer can't understand. When I say, "Other information," the computer says, "Okay, state briefly what you are calling about." When I say, "I have some questions about how to fill out a passport application form," the computer says, "You want passport information, is that right?" I say, "Not if you're just going to send me back to that pre-recorded message." "I'm sorry," says the computer, "I couldn't tell if you answered yes or no." I yell, "I want to speak to a human being!" The computer says, "I'm sorry, I couldn't understand you." After a little while of this back and forth, it transfers me to a human being. I state my purpose in calling. The human representative says, in a bored voice, "If you want information about passports, you have to call the National Passport Information service." After expressing a little outrage, I ask for that phone number, hang up, and dial it.

At the Passport Information Service I encounter another phone tree. But this time I'm canny. I resist the temptation to press 3 for information on applying for a passport, because I know it will be a recorded message rather than anything that will answer my questions. I sit on my hands and grit my teeth, even when we get to the end of all the options and none is given for speaking to a representative. (The National Passport Information Service doesn't have a chatty computer.) But magically, when I just sit there for about five full, long, seconds, it says, "Hold on while I transfer you to a customer service representative." It worked! This final person has a very heavy Asian accent and is barely understandable, and she has trouble understanding some of my questions, but she answers most of them. Phew! Mission accomplished.

It's getting ridiculous. And more seriously, if I weren't already used to this problem, it could sometimes be scary. I cannot count the number of times that I have wondered if it would ever be possible to get hold of a person to answer a specific question and what I would do if it turned out to be impossible to reach anyone. Companies and government bureaus have stopped even offering you the human representative option. It's a game: Can you figure out how to get to talk to a human? So here are my tips, when "speak to a customer service representative" is not a given option.

1) Say something the talking computer can't understand. I've used this successfully with JC Penney now as well as the Post Office.

2) Press zero. This has worked many times even when the computer didn't list zero as an option in the phone tree. It usually doesn't do any harm to try it, but wait until after all the options in the phone tree have been listed. I seem to recall using it successfully with banks.

(Either 1 or 2 is necessary for sending a package from your house using Federal Express, but I can't remember now which it is.)

3) Wait until all options have been given and then sit tight. Count to ten, at least, to see if it rings you over to a human representative.

4) Hang up, call back, and see if you responded to the phone tree too early. There may have been an earlier point in the process where one of the above options would have worked if you hadn't chosen a numbered option.

5) Most importantly, if you have a specific question, never fall for the invitation to press a number for "information," even if the description of the information corresponds to the area you want to ask about. It's almost always a long-winded recorded message that won't answer your question. And such messages are a dead-end road on the phone tree. There is never an option given to speak to a representative after you patiently listen to the recorded information. It's just a waste of time.

There is something mildly alarming about the fact that we even have to talk about this stuff. But I'm quite serious about telling my kids how to do it. With humor, but I'll certainly tell them. I can imagine some young person newly out of the nest and trying desperately to get his electrical service connected, unable to get hold of a human being.

The world shouldn't be like this.


Anonymous said...

I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate the detestable fact that it is so difficult to get a bloody human being on the phone these days. I will absolutely spend extra money to patronize companies that answer the phone. Extra points if the person is in Alabama rather than Katmandu.

Lydia McGrew said...

It has certainly made me less inclined to order from JC Penney. Not that I was going to order a lot from them anyway. But too often one has little choice--if it's a government department, for example. In the case in the story I had pretty much decided that I would make two trips to the post office, one to ask all my questions and the other to turn in the application. That way I wouldn't hold up the line at the post office for too long. But fortunately it turned out not to be necessary. Actually, in fairness to the post office I should say that I had phoned my local post office earlier in the day, before the events in the post, and left a message on a voice mail machine there. I had no faith in getting a call back, and that's why I went through what I did in the post. But the next day I did get a call back from a woman at the post office who answered my questions more clearly. It was a good thing, too, because I found out from her that they will be taking my birth certificate and sending it away. It's supposed to be returned eventually with the passport, but I hadn't gotten that from any other information.

Anyway, there are times when it's very hard to think of alternatives to tricking the non-human system. FedEx offers services that are only to some extent duplicated by UPS and USPS, and in any event UPS and USPS also use heavily computerized sending systems, so one pretty much just has to suffer if one wants to send a package from one's house.

But friendly human companies get my preference wherever possible, that's for sure. It really is a little unnerving sometimes. I've gotten pretty good at navigating phone trees when something really is easy to do with an automated system--report my gas reading, for example, or find out my bank balance. But real questions require real people.

victor said...

Good Evening Lydia McGrew,

Again I must say that The Good Lord does work in mysterious ways. I don't usually click on any other sites because I usually stick close to the ones that I've already committed myself to but for some reason I clicked yours and it's probably because I picked on you in the pass at SHS. Take a breath Victor! Thank you guys.

Anyway as I was about to read your last post, one of our three grand daughters knocks on my door and asked if she could come in to which, I ask her, Who's girl are you? She replies, "I'm Jesus's girl!" I then said, well you don't need to ask cause you've got a free passport, yes I said that before I even started reading you post, I said you've got a free passport! Go figure! To speed things up a bit, after she left, I started reading your post and forgive me but it's been awhile since I've laughed that much. I recalled giving permission to our oldest daughter, a very good looking blond who has just moved in with us and to make another long story short which is impossible but I know that I must try anyway. Take a deep breath Victor! Thanks again guys! :)

She was on the phone and believe me, she just left a job in Ottawa, our Canadian Capital city and she’s been dealing with all kinds of people in rooming houses and she had or would I say has a boss who is a saint. If you don't agree with me then, tell me how many bosses would fire you and then wire you more than eight times again. I'm so tempted to tell you where she works but even under the influence and knowing that she would never ever read this post and between you and me, "IT" wouldn't matter anyway!

Now where was I? Oh yes! Our oldest daughter was talking like you were to an operator and she was really UPSET and for one who had lived in Ottawa and knew how to deal with all kinds of people including, excuse the expression, Crack heads, and from what I’ve seen, she was professional at “IT”.

Anyway, as she was talking on the phone, to no one in particular, she had lost it with these so called three number rotation. I tried to keep myself from laughing out loud in front of her because they just kept doing to her what you mentioned in your post. To make another long story short, personally, I’ve been there and done that many of times!

To go back in time an hour or so earlier, my wife and I had just gotten into a bank and as a crossing guard who had just got off work, I was a little over dressed in the bank because, it's about -20 here. I told my wife not to talk too much but it was me doing all the talking in the bank. Go Figure! I couldn't help but noticing that this bank was changing staff so fast and I mentioned it to this teller who agreed with me and then I started joking around in so many words about how smart tellers were nowadays and that they, the higher up's didn't want to give you guys a chance to figure out these computers and then I continued on to say stuff like thank God that they don't let the electronic voting system take over cause then they would elect the alien's of their choice. :)

After we withdrew the necessary money from our grandson’s account who is now in Ottawa for C.F surgery, and lucky us our oldest daughter decided to join her sister and help instead of me driving them up. They will be seeing their old boss so please forgive me, if for some reason, I’m not thinking that her old boss is trying to get her back up there to work for them again. Do they not realize that our oldest daughter and son-in-law were not kidding when they said that it’s time for them to think about their children now?

I really want to go on and on but I think that I better stop now while I'm on a role and besides my wife is calling and I must go now.

Anyway, I just thought that I would in so many words let you know that you're not alone in this crazy world of ours.

God Bless