Automated phone systems no substitute for real people


First Posted: 8/7/2009

I can appreciate new technology as much as anyone, but just like with the atomic bomb, an awesome sense of responsibility can accompany major discoveries. Nowhere has this responsibility been abused more than with telephones.
In olden days, telephones were scarce across these parts. Then someone down at the friendly neighborhood general store had one put in, which nearby residents got to use from time to time.
Gradually, more and more people took advantage of Alexander Graham Bells inventive genius to have those wondrous instruments installed in their homes, and from that point on there was no turning back. Party lines evolved into private lines and then there were mobile phones, cordless telephones and finally the cell phones of today, and who knows what else will come after that.
Along the way emerged answering machines, voice-mail systems and the development that has caused the biggest upheaval in our American way of life of all those pesky automated telephone systems that too many larger businesses and corporations are using.
It is so nice to be able to dial a number nowadays and hear an actual human voice on the other end. Even if that person sounds like Attila the Hun, it sure beats a recorded message offering the usual empty friendly greeting, followed by that same empty friendly greeting repeated in Spanish.
Its troubling that more and more institutions that consumers rely on be they banks, utility firms, medical clinics, credit card companies, pharmacies or car dealerships are subjecting us to an automated maze every time we need to take care of some important matter.
And it always seems that the complexity of the automated telephone system that youre having to navigate is in direct proportion to the severity of the problem youre trying to get solved.
For example, when you look at a credit card bill and wonder how $1,000 in erroneous charges from a bar and casino in Reno, Nev., got there, you want answers and you want them now.
After listening to the automated voice say press one for this, press two for that and so on until all the numbers on the telephone are used up, you might finally get lucky and learn the one that actually allows you to speak to a real person.
The systems I really hate make you listen to a bunch of recorded messages promoting new products or services before you can receive help.
When I try to call a certain nationwide bank that has an office in Mount Airy, it almost makes me wish that Alexander Graham Bell was never even born. The usual automated voice is heard, allowing me the chance to learn all 75,000 of the banks locations and their hours. Thats OK, except for the fact that I already know which bank I need and just want to talk to someone at that location.
Finally, after supplying a bunch of choices for other useless information, you can punch in a number that supposedly allows you to talk to an associate. However, on two separate occasions lately, that line has rang and rang without anyone ever answering.
Eventually, I got wise and went back to the beginning, where I had the choice of punching in a number for regular run-of-the-mill customer (which I am) or business customer, and I selected the latter. Immediately, I reached a real bank employee who rapidly put me through to the person I needed.
Im not saying that this particular bank cares more about its business customers than its regular run-of-the-mill ones, but…
Also, I dont want to pick on financial institutions in general, because as I mentioned, you encounter such automated telephone systems nearly everywhere you turn these days.
I take pride in the fact that you can still call The Mount Airy News during regular business hours and speak to an actual human being, who also is friendly and eager to help.
In a way, I suppose that we consumers are partly at fault for the saturation of those automated phone networks.
To be fair, individuals Ive spoken to who deal a lot with the public say that people tend to have a bad habit of not getting to the point. Instead of simply calling a business and asking for help in a concise, straightforward manner, callers will take all day to get to the relevant information thats needed to handle a matter efficiently and without driving those they are calling insane.
Sadly, there just seems to be many lonely people out there who might tend to use a call to the bank as an excuse to tell some helpless employee all about their life story, aches and pains, family troubles or why they hate the government.
Yes, the general public certainly can be more considerate of the time it takes up when calling someone in a business capacity. However, I also believe theres more room for good, old-fashioned real people at the other end of the line rather than an automated voice greeting consumers.
One major failure of Americas business community at large today, whether it involves retailers or restaurants or banks, is not supplying basic personal service. I think if more companies would embrace the value of that, they would realize modern consumers will respond generously to even a small degree of personal service in this automated world that increasingly stresses the impersonal.
And where high-tech telephone systems are concerned, it might be that we have come full circle back to Square One only to realize that low-tech (using real people) is the answer.
Tom Joyce is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at [email protected] or 719-1924.

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