What happened to the world? Yes, I am in my 40’s and pining for the good old days; the days when we didn’t have to talk to computers and navigate seventeen different prompts to get to a live customer service representative, only to find that the automated service was actually smarter than the person who finally picked up the receiver and also asks for your account number or ten digit phone number. I am pining for the days when you could get a person on the other end of the line who didn’t follow a script or record the call for quality assurance. Quality assurance? What is that, even? Is there an anonymous uber-representative who monitors the call? Someone whose equanimity and superior judgment makes them smarter and more qualified than the person dealing with me? Why can’t I talk to that person? And god forbid you should ask for a supervisor, because you will be put on everlasting hold until you lose your patience, your mind, or the will to live, and just hang up.
Let me back up. I used to love getting on the phone with strangers. When I was a kid, I was into building models – WWII aircraft and battleships, muscle cars, dragsters – you name it. Once I received a kit that was missing an entire frame of parts. I called the phone number on the box, and talked to a very nice guy who not only shipped me an entire new kit, but asked about what I was building, and suggested some new kits that were coming out that year. And he picked up on the third ring! Upon hanging up, I felt like I had a pen pal of sorts at the Revell company, and that connection with a total stranger made me feel worldly and grown up. This of course led to dialing random numbers to hone my prank phone call skills. But beyond getting a laugh and confusing a total stranger, I really enjoyed the possibilities of creating a connection with someone new, and often found myself in conversations that lasted a half hour or more. Maybe they started with “Your refrigerator is running – you’d better go catch it,” but more often than not they ended in genuine conversation.
When I worked for my college newspaper, we’d occasionally get calls from mothers trying to help their kids with their homework, or other odd requests (why they called the Daily Titan and not the Los Angeles Times, I’ll never know). I’d always take those calls, and found great pleasure in trying to help research an answer. I remember a woman calling to ask if anyone at the paper knew what the butterfly effect was. I said, “let me transfer you to our weather department.” Since we didn’t have a weather department, I ran to another extension and picked up the phone and rumbled brusquely, “Weather – how can I help?” I told that poor woman everything she could ever hope to know about the butterfly effect, all in a ridiculous Walter Matthau-esque accent. Well, you get the point: I love good discourse with a stranger.
But it’s 2015 and I can’t find a human on the phone anymore. And if I beat the obstacle course of prompts, I often find myself speaking to someone in or from another country who doesn’t share my cultural references or sense of humor in some of its most enjoyable forms: sarcasm, dry wit and absurdist bureaucratic double talk. The script doesn’t allow for it, and besides, calls are being monitored and recorded for quality assurance. So you have a stilted conversation with someone who can only solve your problem if it has already been solved before and documented in the company policy handbook – afraid all the while of being fired for straying from approved procedure. And how often do you find after one of these joyous exchanges that the thing you were calling to deal with did not get dealt with? More often than not, I find that despite the account change being noted and the quality assured, I’m in for three more phone calls and at least 30 minutes on hold that I’ll never have back to complete a change of address.
Most companies go to admirable lengths to avoid ever having to talk to a customer. The goal of automated phone systems is to beat the very spark of humanity from the customer until he, too, behaves like a computer. The goal is to get the customer to solve their own problem, online or through prompts, without ever speaking to a human. The problem with this is there is often no prompt for the issue at hand.
And by god, when I do finally get a human on the phone I try so hard to make a connection, to make them see that we are two humans trying to solve a problem – can we find some common ground here or at least commiserate together? But alas, those days are over. Yes, I’ve had the very spark of humanity beaten out of me. Exchanges with my customer service representative friends have become dispiriting and perfunctory, and my expectations of resolution bleak.
If I called Jason Sudeikis, I’m sure he’d commiserate. He has a deep appreciation for bureaucratic absurdity and carries the torch for guys like me with his lineage to great comedic performances such as Chevy Chase in Fletch and Dan Akroyd in The Blues Brothers. I bet he mourns the era of the customer service representative who reveals she has one kid who’s down with the flu and another who ran into a parked car last week while sledding down the street near their home just outside of St. Paul. When I watch Jason’s performances, I see more than a man trying to get a laugh—I see an aw-shucks Midwest guy who relishes the intricacies of human connection, and the humor that springs from that. And I bet he loved prank phone calls too.
If we’re spending more and more moments of our life on the phone talking to our health care provider’s customer service department about correcting the social security number on our daughter’s file, shouldn’t some of those moments include human exchanges that enrich our day just a little bit? Is there a number we can press for that? Maybe not, but we hope you’ll enjoy this issue of Off Camera while you’re on hold.