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.