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.