I am mentioning this because I heard the routine on the telephone while on hold for a utility company. It stands out in my mind because it was the first and only time I have ever been even slightly entertained by anything I heard while on hold for customer service, anytime, anywhere.
I remembered this the other day, mid-pandemic, trapped at home, using the phone more than before, like most of us. This allowed my brain to revisit my hatred — and I use that word advisedly but correctly — of corporate call-answering and caller-triage systems. That’s my term; there doesn’t seem to be any universally accepted expression for the monstrously impersonal and deceitful way corporations avoid having you talk to real people who cost them money in salary and benefits and toilet breaks, but instead bounce you into an endless loop-de-loop of recorded options that seldom answer your questions, after compelling you (“for your convenience”) to listen to a number of pitches extolling the company and advertising its services, and offering options that have nothing to do with your problem.
I know that impatience with corporate voice systems is a tiresome, hackneyed gripe. But I have spent much of my adult life fulminating over this, my resentment festering, marinating in outrage, surfacing from time to time like bubbles in a septic tank ... and, well, I think I have some fresh insights.
Sure, the tritest gripe is the dishonesty in suggesting that your call is important to them — a self-annihilating lie when delivered 40 times over a 20-minute hold, or when followed by the gall of having a robot inform you, matter of factly, as though this were perfectly normal, that your estimated wait time is “52 minutes.” But that is nothing compared to the most revolting feature, which is the use of the word “momentarily,” the ubiquitous go-to adverb allegedly describing when you will be permitted to talk to a living person, and which is always a lie, inasmuch as “momentarily,” according to Merriam-Webster, means “at any moment.”
Another universal lie is that you should “listen carefully as our menu options have recently changed.” If this statement were true, every corporation would have to have an “Options Change Department,” with a ginormous staff, whose sole job would be changing options daily. If they actually had a staff large enough to change options as frequently as they claim to, they could just have them talk to customers and eliminate the phone tree entirely.
But perhaps the most insidious lie is that “we are experiencing an unusually high volume of calls,” which is always part of their message, meaning it is by definition not unusual, and is phenomenally annoying. It is as though the fire alarm at your workplace was always blaring. The fact is, the delay is deliberate. They want you to rot and fume on the phone until you give up and go to their website, which does not demand expensive employee toilet breaks. It’s also why the hold music tends to sound like an all-chimp kazoo band.
I have always wondered why companies are willing to do this; it is not generally considered a smart business strategy to make your customers so furious that if you spit on them, they’ll sizzle. They’ll just go somewhere else, no? But then I realized the answer is … no. There is no competitive advantage to making your customers’ waiting time any less odious, or making their access to real people any easier, because your competitors are doing the same awful thing you are. Toyota doesn’t have to develop a built-in refrigerator in its Corolla, though that might be nice, because as far as they know, Honda isn’t working on anything like that for the Civic, either. It’s almost like an accepted, reverse-engineered form of price-fixing.
I’m 69, too old for this. Having grown up in the Bronx, I can tell you: Oy gevalt, these companies are driving me meshugeneh.
Email Gene Weingarten at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find chats and updates at wapo.st/magazine.
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