Desperately Searching for a Human Being

I was watching a movie from a few years ago and saw a scene that would be considered implausible today, almost laughable. A woman was on the phone with an airline employee, asking if there were any flights out of Mexico the next day. Not only was the woman able to talk to a real person, the airline staffer found a flight and booked it for her. It’s hard to believe there was a time when you could get true customer service. But we seniors can remember—and lament what’s changed.

Last week, I was clearing out old tax returns, some from the 1980s. In one stack I found a postcard from an IRS agent, politely asking me to call her about an unresolved tax issue. Included was her name and phone number. That meant I would have had a direct line to the agent instead of spending an hour going through a phone tree that offered multiple and confusing options. This is the new world we live in, far different than the one most of us grew up in.

In this new world, people increasingly feel alienated from each other: witness the increase in traffic altercations or the general rise in rude behavior, especially on social media. I have to wonder if trying to conduct business with an automated voice only adds to our general frustration and the breakdown of civic norms. (How many times have you cursed the automated voice telling you there’s a 30-minute wait to speak to a customer service representative?)

I’ve been thinking about this because I recently took my computer in for a tune-up with the Geek Squad. Everything went smoothly on my initial visit, but then I couldn’t get my computer back, and I couldn’t find anyone who would tell me what was going on or when it would be done. I received confusing text messages, including one saying my computer was ready the day before, when I had gone to the store to retrieve it but was told it wasn’t ready.

I was promised a text update the next day, but, when it didn’t come, I tried what used to be a common practice: calling the store to find out the status of my repair. First, I got a recording for the local store but then was quickly switched to the national business, where an automated voice cheerfully addressed me (“hello, Kathy! Thanks for being a member!”) and then offered a series of irrelevant questions (“push 1 for store hours”) that led nowhere.

Several times I started over again, trying to find the one door that would open to a real human being. After at least 45 minutes of trying, I did connect to someone, but she was unable to do anything because the tech staff working on my computer hadn’t updated their progress since the day I brought my computer in, and the customer service rep had no authority to chase any new information down. She had a slightly foreign accent, which only led to my sense of disorientation: Someone in India was trying to answer questions about my computer in Boulder.

None of it makes any sense until you realize it’s all about big corporations making more money by hiring less staff and automating the customer service process. This is nothing new, but the practice seems to be escalating, as more companies jump on the bandwagon, increasing frustration levels all around. The world has more serious problems in the world than poor customer service, but I think it’s one more source of alienation in a world where people feel disconnected from each other.

That why, when I call my doctor’s office and get a human being, one who seems interested in my question and in trying to figure out a solution, I feel a wave of relief and, yes, appreciation. As we sign off, the nice human being, usually a woman, says, “Have a nice day,” and I echo the sentiment back. I want to believe that we both mean it.

18 thoughts on “Desperately Searching for a Human Being

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  1. You’ve hit on a raw nerve that I believe just about everyone is feeling. I could add my own horrific experiences (including one with that Geek Squad), but why bother? We all go through it, virtually every day. I hadn’t put this customer service environment together with the general sense of alienation and the rise of aggression in our society, but that definitely clicks. Now what do I have to click on to get past the phone tree?

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  2. Make that two Amens! I put a premium on great customer service — personal, polite, even friendly service from a real live human being (one I can understand). Organizations that can’t provide that probably won’t see me again.

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    1. I agree, but it’s hard to find a large business that allows you to talk to a human being. (Smaller businesses are better.)

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      1. You articulately describe what I’ve gone through so many times now that, like you, when I actually do speak to someone who is nice and helpful I am deeply grateful. I suppose that’s the upside. We appreciate one another more when we are acting human. We used to just take that for granted.

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      2. It almost feels like people who are helpful are bucking the system, so deserve our appreciation even more.

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  3. I recently found myself appreciating the front desk staff of my dog’s vet office and some others I interact with regularly – I realized how rare it is these days to have the human connection. Your post shows the majority of the time it is not that way. Used to be the norm and has now become the rare. Sigh.

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    1. I was at my cat’s vet this week and, like you, appreciated how concerned and friendly everyone was. It felt good.

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  4. This is a case where it helps to lower one’s expectations in order to avoid disappointment. At the same time, like Susan R., I always feel over-the-top appreciative when I get what used to be ordinary customer service. Real people, genuine efforts to be helpful. Wow! When I was going through my cancer journey, the Mercy Medical system assigned to me a Nurse Navigator–a real person who not only called me after major appointments to see how I was and what I needed, but also showed up early in the morning of my surgery to accompany me to–and through–the various steps between arrival and operating room. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a Life Navigator? I want someone I can talk to who will, for example, find a reliable person to do repairs in my house, recommend a hair salon where the hair cutter person doesn’t tell me her life story while she stands with scissors in one hand staring into space trying to remember was that in 1972 or 1973? AND she’ll wear a mask and not be snarky about it. (I’ve taken to buzz cutting my own hair because I really don’t want to know what happened to the unmarried pregnant granddaughter who was sleeping on the stylist’s sofa.)

    I’m sorry to hear that your computer is lost in Geek land. Sigh. We live in challenging times. Take-a-deep-breath times. Let-it-go mantra times. Take care of yourself, Kath. We all need each other.

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    1. Verna, I had the same thought. I also had a nurse navigator recently, who was wonderful (but then the information she gave me on the phone didn’t match what actually happened in the hospital, but still. . . ). I love your idea for a life navigator. We all need one, especially as we get older: someone to get the sprinklers going, to find a piano tuner, to encourage me to take a nap when I get tired, etc. Yes, indeed, we do need each other.

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  5. I know of what you speak. I have to order CPAP supplies monthly and go through this routine. Same holds true with other businesses we deal with. It does get frustrating but then Friday I actually spoke to another human being who both cared about and addressed my problem. The human race is not gone…..yet! So there is hope. Have a great day. 🌞

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    1. There is room for hope, and when I do get a human being on the line, I try my best to be as friendly as possible, knowing that customer service people can get a lot of abuse. Hope you have a good day.

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  6. I enjoy very much to read your comments. Although I live in a small, European country (Portugal), globalization brought the same unpleasant problems of big, richer, more populated (we are just 10 millions) countries. Sometimes I feel I could just give up and use as little technology as possible. But then…it also has so many advantages that we didn’t enjoy not so many years ago:-)…

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    1. Thank you, Conceicao. I’m sorry to hear that Portugal is suffering from the same problems as the U.S. But you live in a wonderful country, where, I hope, people are still kind to one another.

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