Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Feb. 26, 2010

To talk to a human, please press 5

Mom recently decided to "bundle" her cable television service with Internet and phone so I offered to call the cable company to get it set up. What followed was an experience most of us can relate to.

"For English, press 1. For Spanish, press 2," said the "woman" in a pleasant voice.

I pressed 1.

"Is the number you're calling from associated with this account? Say yes or press 1."

I pressed 1 again.

"For privacy reasons, please say or enter the personal identification number on your account or say or enter the last four digits of your Social Security Number."

I entered the four-digit PIN number on Mom's latest cable statement.

It took three more exchanges of pressing numbers from 1 to 5 before I reached the inevitable, "All our customer service representatives are currently busy. Your call is important to us ..." Then a commercial began.

Somehow I just didn't feel very important. Irritated was what I was feeling. I told Mom I was going to hang up if a person hadn't answered the phone within the next three minutes.

Down to mere seconds, a young man came on the line. I asked his name.

"I'm Josh. What can I do to help you, ma'am?"

After we finished making the necessary arrangements and I had hung up, I wondered why I had been annoyed. People decried the change when the telephone operator was replaced by a dial tone. But they soon came to prefer the new way. It was quicker and more private to interact with the phone company's machine than with its operators.

I mentioned to husband Art that I should have just gone to the cable company's office, but he pointed out that, at the very least, it would have taken 10 minutes to get there and another 10 to return and I probably would have had to wait on a person there just as I had waited on the phone. In other words, interacting with the answering machine was more efficient and cost less - plus I didn't have to get out in the cold to accomplish the task!

He added that he stopped at the bank and it took him fully 20 minutes before he could talk to a customer service representative, but it hadn't seemed a big imposition.

Yet I had been ready to hang up in three minutes.

We've had a similar reaction checking in for airline flights. Using the automated system to check luggage results in far less time in line than when the whole process was handled by a clerk, yet our stress level is higher.

Reflecting on my conversation with Josh, I recalled how as it progressed, my initial irritation faded. I had mentioned that Mom would want to get good rates to call my sister Gaila and her family, who live in Bolivia.

"Wow, Bolivia! That's different," he said.

I found myself explaining that Gaila and I had Bolivian friends when we were in college and, after Gaila went down to visit them, she met and married a Bolivian man. I told him I had also lived in South America, but as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Josh told me he had seriously considered Peace Corps, but he was more interested in going to Ukraine. I told him what a good opportunity it had been for me and he should consider going.

This "small talk" - this conversation that had absolutely nothing to do with why I had called - somehow transformed the experience. As we talked, I even noticed I was smiling.

I suppose my reaction, in part, involves expectations. When I use the Internet, I'm not expecting human involvement and may not even want it. But when I use the phone, I usually want to talk to the person I am calling and not a third party. So the switch from operators to electronic call routing was a positive thing. But when my expectation of speaking person-to-person becomes person-to-machine, it feels as if there is a subtle message that I'm not important enough to warrant another person spending his or her time with me. This is not a positive thing.

But I think there is more. Making a call to change service, to complain when a product has failed, to question a charge on a credit-card bill or even to check in for a flight are all somewhat anxious times. And speaking with another human somehow provides a feeling of understanding that reduces that anxiety, even if in reality the party who answers is only interested in how many more people they have to talk to before quitting time. But a machine, regardless of how soothing its synthesized voice may be, is completely incapable of such a connection. So even if it reduces the company's costs and pushes my bill a bit lower, I think it will be awhile before I feel an electronic receptionist is a good thing.

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