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by Nancy Rechtman

Customer service. What does that mean, exactly? I would imagine that the word Ďcustomerí is fairly well understood. Someone who is purchasing or using your goods or services. You would think that the concept of service would be fairly self-explanatory as well. Helping people, assisting people, trying to do something to improve their current situation. So, when you put those two words together, customer + service, you would think that customer service would equal doing your best to provide the most pleasant and hassle-free assistance for those who are attempting to use the services you provide. OK, stop laughing already.

Most companies provide toll-free numbers for their customer service departments. In the old days, you would sit on hold, for possibly hours at a time, while listening to what is affectionately known as Ďelevator music.í You would often be disconnected during the wait and have to dial again. After about half a day of this, you would either slam the phone down in frustration, or sometimes, your patience might actually be rewarded by speaking to an actual live human being on the other end of the line who sounded annoyed that you had interrupted them in the midst of whatever earth-shattering task you had pulled them away from, such as filing their nails. But even if they didnít solve the problem, you had the small satisfaction of knowing that you had made human contact.

Today, when you dial that 1-800 number, you are invariably met by the precise, clipped tones of an automatic recording. First, you get a menu of prompts as to which customer service area you should go to. You press the number. Then you are asked if you know the extension of the party you wish to speak to. You donít, so you wait. The voice, sounding a bit snippier, suggests you go to a company directory. You do not wish to do so. You wait expectantly. The voice tells you to punch another number for assistance. You do. You are then instructed to punch in your phone number. You do that as well. Now, punch in your account number. You do that. Now, punch in the first four letters of your motherís maiden name. You attempt to do that before the voice cuts you off. Now, do the hokey pokey and turn yourself about. Huh? Never mind. You are now given ten options as to where you would like the voice to direct your call. None of these options suits your needs So you wait for a more suitable choice. The voice says it does not recognize your response. You wait some more, hoping that you will finally be allowed to speak to a human being. There is complete silence. You accidentally cough into the phone. The voice scolds you that there is no such response and you, moron that you are, will now be returned to the main menu so that you can start again, since you are obviously too dimwitted to figure out what you should be doing on the first try.

You are once again at the main menu. This time, you listen to all options, praying that one of them will be for the feeble-minded who need actual contact with a human being. There is no such option. So you continue to punch numbers. Finally, you are near your goal. You have actually reached the right department! You are told that you will be put on hold for approximately two hours as there are three hundred and twenty-seven people ahead of you. You put the speakerphone on and do your chores as you listen to faint music piping through the phone lines. Every once in awhile there is silence, so you race back to the phone to pick it up and make sure that you are still in the queue. With a sigh of relief, you hear the music once again. You continue working around the kitchen, as quietly as possible, stifling any coughs and sneezes. Finally, the disembodied voice announces that you are next on the line. You heave a giant sigh of relief. The fact that your bladder is about to explode will finally pay off! You gather your paperwork before you, pen poised, as you lift the receiver and wait. The voice tells you that you will now be connected to a customer service operator. You hear the click as you practically wriggle with excitement. There is silence for a moment. Then you hear the voice of doom: If you would like to make a call, please hang up and dial againÖ. Yes, you have been disconnected by the sadistic voice and plummeted into telephone hell. You are being punished for your temerity in assuming that you deserve assistance and a shred of human compassion. You are crushed, humbled, in awe of the power of the computerized voice. Puny human that you are, you have no recourse when it comes to the might of the machines.

I guess Iím just not with it anymore. I prefer person-to-person contact. I have never been able to explain my problems to a stilted mechanical voice. I prefer good old human incompetence. If someone is going to mess up my accounts, I need someone who can actually tell me that itís my problem, not theirs. I need someone to scoff at the confirmation number I was given by a previous customer assistance person and tell me no such number exists. I need the sound of gum popping and annoyed grunts to assure me that somebody cares about me. Call me old-fashioned, but the disconnect of the metallic voice cannot compare with the disdainful snickers and veiled insults of the human connection. Sigh.

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