Cambrian: Opinion

Trapped in telephone limbo

Ever get stuck up a phone tree? Hung out to dry like last month’s laundry? Maybe you’re on hold even as we speak, reading this column while you wait for somebody in the Philippines or India or who knows where to resolve your problem. Or, more likely, to tell you it can’t be resolved.

Meanwhile, you’re out on a limb — and a very precarious one, at that.

Well, I’ve got good news and bad news for you.

First, the good: Many companies are phasing out phone trees. But don’t start jumping up and down on that fragile limb just yet. The bad news is that the phone tree is being replaced by something even worse: the Internet maze.

The maze was made famous in the Greek myth of Theseus, whose reward for finding his way to the center was a “date” with a beast known as a minotaur — a human with the head of a bull. Your reward for navigating the Internet maze? A date with a human who might seem just about as stubborn. He or she has no doubt been programmed to say certain words, based not on your responses but a script provided by his superiors.

“How may I provide you with excellent service today?”

“Can I interest you in this product that has absolutely no relevance to your call?”

“Will you kindly rate your service a 10 out of 10? Anything less, and I’ll be put on probation.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, you have to initiate contact by clicking on the company’s website’s “Contact Us” icon. If you can find it. Then, if you manage to subdue it with your trusty mouse, chances are you won’t find a phone number. Instead, you’ll have to fill out an online form and wait for somebody on the other end to call you.

This is what happened to me with a certain company that makes its name off one-click searches.

I shouldn’t have expected my customer service query to be a one-click experience.

Me? All I wanted was to pay a renewal fee for a subscription service. That’s right. I wanted to give them my money. They just didn’t seem to want it. My bank account had changed, and I needed to update my info. So I input my new account on my main site with the company only to be told that it just wasn’t good enough. The information couldn’t be retrieved from that platform — even though it was and is owned by the same corporation. Something about protocols.

So I had to fill out a form containing several confirmation questions, then wait for someone to call me back. All in the name of security. I felt as if I were in a line at the airport on the day after 9/11. I’d do my bureaucratic duty. What choice did I have?

When I finally received a call, two days later, the “customer service professional” asked me to answer the exact same questions all over again. I meekly complied. Then I was put on hold for 10 minutes, only to be told that he couldn’t resolve the problem for me. A supervisor would have to do it.

“Can you just transfer me?” I asked.


“Can I call this person directly?”

Not a chance.

I was told only to expect a call back at some undisclosed future time. It never came. After about two weeks, the issue was finally resolved —not by phone but by a series of back-and-forth emails worthy of a marathon rally at Wimbledon. After all this, I suddenly find myself longing for the good old days of the original phone tree.

Does that qualify as ecological advancement?

Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor.