23 April 2001

"A man who is always ready to believe what
is told to him will never do well."
     - Gaius Petronius

I like living in the twenty-first century, with all the conveniences, labor-saving devices, and astonishing breakthroughs in technology and science. I'm a real fan of progress. I was first on my block to own an answering machine, a personal computer, a cell phone, a wireless PDA. Instant messaging rings my chimes. Really. I'm about as far from Luddite as Buck Rogers was from the Hubble Telescope. With one glaring exception. Automated telephone menus are the devil's own handiwork. I can't stand them. Let me explain.

I've just spent the past several hours trying to navigate a pen maker's automated menu. I have a pen the company stopped manufacturing about fifteen years ago. I am extremely fond of this pen. When I hold it, it feels like it's part of my hand. The pen can be fixed. I need a replacement part. I know how to make the repair. I am willing to pay good money to get what I need. I called the pen maker, sure this was going to be a simple, painless transaction. I was dead wrong.

At every turn, the pen maker's automated menu offered me choices, none of which got me close to a human being, or a replacement part for my pen.

When my digital enemy answered, it spoke to me in a pleasant enough woman's voice. "Welcome. This is the XYZ Pen Company. You are a valued customer. Please listen to the following to help us serve you better..." This is where the fun began. The menu options were laid out, but not one of them involved pen repair or replacement parts. The closest match was "Customer Relations," so I pressed "2."

The woman's voice, now less friendly, stated, "If this is a medical emergency, please hold the line, and a representative will be with you shortly. If you are calling about our premiere product line, press one. If you are calling about other products, press two. If you need to speak to a customer relations representative, press three."

My index finger hovered over the keypad as I considered the instructions. Since when do people calling pen makers for replacement parts find themselves in medical emergencies? And wouldn't somebody in a medical emergency be better off calling the hospital, before the pen maker? I pressed "3."

The sibilant, mechanical female voice spoke again. This time, she was terse and to the point. "All our customer relations representatives are answering other customer calls at this time. We do not know when a representative will be free to answer your call. There is no point in waiting. If you really feel the need to leave a message, please press one at the tone, and leave your name and number. Somebody will eventually get back to you." I pressed "1" and waited. And waited. When I finally tired of waiting for something to happen, I hung up. Did I mention this was not a toll-free number?

I figured there was a glitch in the system, so I decided to try again. Nobody has ever accused me of being a quitter. I called the pen maker eight times and went through the exact same series of events each time. Naturally, I invariably reached the same unsatisfying conclusion.

On my ninth and final attempt, I tried something different. Right at the start of the litany of call options, I pressed "0" and held my breath. I hoped I would bypass the menu and be switched directly to an operator. My only goal was to reach a human being who could answer my questions, take my credit card information, and ship me a new part.

The gambit was a success. I heard a faint clicking, a hum, and then a sweet, tentative, "Hello? May I help you?" coming from the other end of the line. I explained my problem to the soft-voiced, solicitous young woman. She said, "Oh, of course. You need a new part. Just let me connect you to a customer relations representative." Before I could stop her, I was switched away, and I heard the now-dreaded, "All our customer relations representatives are answering other customer calls at this time..."

I hung up, cursing the pen maker and the automated menu to eternal perdition.

Excuse me. I'm leaving now. I have to drive to the office supply store for a new pen.


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