Life Lessons & How Tos

Is Anyone There? How to Get a Real Person on the Telephone

More and more, our phone calls to airlines, banks, credit card companies, Internet providers- and even telephone companies-are answered by automated systems.

It gets harder and harder to reach a human being. Peppy computerized voices try to coach us on how to crack the code and make the appropriate telephone key punches to reach as many as five or six “options.”

Punching the “operator” button in desperation often kicks us backs to “the main menu,” to start all over again, or in some cases it disconnects the call. “Hello, Mars?”

It’s an annoyance that has finally made the news. In its new “Personal Journal” section, the Wall Street Journal (May 8, 2002) had a reporter tell about sampling the non-toll, 800 phone numbers of dozens of the companies that it says are spending $7.4 million this year to computerize incoming phone calls.

This report gives a few sneaky clues.

  • Punching zero doesn’t work at most systems, but punching it three times – and ignoring the repeated computerized tut-tut that this is “an invalid entry” – sometimes reaches a human being.
  • And punching star-zero or zero-pound works with others.
  • American Airlines lets you press 6, then say “operator”- and with luck you then reach a human being.
  • Amtrak lets you press zero-pound and then say “agent.”
  • Sprint PCS comes alive if you refuse to keypunch but say “agent” twice. Then, after being told by an automaton that “your call is important to us, but customer service is serving other callers,” there is supposedly calming music for the computer-announced waiting time, which may be half an hour.

That kind of wait became such an annoyance to Ralph Nader that in a recent column he says he called the CEO of U.S. Air, Steve Wolfe, to complain about a 40-minute wait, and to dare him to try its 800 number himself. Nader claims that his CEO-punching persuaded Wolfe to call him back to claim that he was hiring 250 new customer service operators.

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