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.
Who designs these systems, anyway? Do CEOs ever call their own company's switchboard to see how alienating some of these messages and choices can be?
Caller-friendly phone menus and voice-response systems have their place. There's no need to pay Ernestine to deliver such perfunctory information as business hours and directions to a store, or departure and arrival schedules for planes and trains.
But impersonalizing and depersonalizing a culture comes at a price. In his book "Technopoly," cultural critic Neil Postman observes that every technology is "both a burden and a blessing." Noting that the benefits and deficits of a new technology are not distributed equally, he adds, "There are winners and losers."
The winners in this case are the corporate accountants who study the bottom-line savings that automated phone systems produce and say proudly to those above them, "Look, boss, how many operators' salaries we're saving."
The losers are the callers who can't - or won't - wend their way through the maze of options. As customers hang up in frustration, there is no way companies can tally the lost business they take with them. Nor can CEOs calculate the value of the goodwill they've lost as a result. In the long run, that makes the supposed winners in the executive suite potential losers, too.
Automated systems also raise other concerns. A bank in Boston asks callers to punch in their Social Security number before being connected to a representative. Why, pray tell, is that invasion of privacy necessary? What kind of Big Brother is tracking these calls?
As one partial solution, Mr. Postman makes a case for "resistance fighters," whose ranks include "those who refuse to accept efficiency as the preeminent goal of human relations." Their polite, pleading message could be:
Move over, "Julie." It's time for Ernestine to make at least a partial comeback. Businesses could add two more options to their menus: "Press H for Help." And "Press E for Ernestine."