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By Joel Klebanoff

Signs of Life

Victoria, the virtuous editor, suggested that I pass some information along to you as a public service. Public service? Whose columns has she been reading? Certainly not mine. I'm unwaveringly dedicated to messing with the public's mind as much and as widely as my limited abilities and readership allow. Oh well, just this once.

According to Victoria and a February 26, 2006, New York Times article titled "Your Call Should Be Important to Us, but It's Not," someone has developed a Web site that will help you quickly wend your way through the dense "press one for ..." telephone jungles that have sprouted at most companies, without the customary risk of accidentally descending into telephone hell along the way. Being an intrepid journalist, I took the unusual step (unusual for me) of taking the time to check the story out. It's true. The Web site exists and offers the information that the article says it offers, although I haven't bothered to verify the data's accuracy. That would be too much like work for my liking.

The Web site,, is free and claims to be powered by over one million consumers. It offers a database of phone numbers and the "secret" (at least, they used to be secret) Integrated Voice Response (IVR) system codes that you need to get past the computer in order to speak to a real, live human being. Human beings—you remember them. Of course, getting past the IVR system doesn't stop you from hearing "your call is important to us, please stay on the line to retain your priority sequence" 537 times while you wait for an operator to finish aggravating another caller or for another operator to get back from his or her coffee break, whichever comes first.

Learning of this site was a shock for me. I thought companies had long ago dismissed all of the humans in their customer service departments and converted them into customer disservice departments in order to save money while still competing with others in their industry to see who can most piss off the greatest number of customers fastest. You didn't know about that little contest, did you? It's an industry secret. Who knew there were still a few people around for us to talk to?

My hate for IVRs should come as no surprise. They were the subject of one of my early columns in this more than a year-and-a-half-old adventure called MC Tips 'N Tirades. (If you missed my IVR tirade, "Press Four for Frustration," it's in my book, BYTE-ing Satire. Who am I to pass up an opportunity for a good plug?) I don't like IVRs any more now than I did then. So a Web site that tells me how to avoid most of their frustration sounds like a great idea.

Of course, you know me. My philosophy is that every silver lining has a cloud, so I do see a few problems. First, the information is available only on the Web. The people who would appreciate this service the most are technophobes, most of whom don't surf the Web. It might come as a surprise to you, the digerati, but some folks would never see my online column unless someone else printed a copy and manually handed it to them. (Hi, Mom.) I know that these people (at least my mother) would greatly appreciate the ability to evade quickly the Silicon Sallies that companies foist on us when we try to call for service. Therefore, rather than just putting them on a Web site, I think these codes should be printed in the phone book right beside the company's number—although the company that publishes the book would probably accidentally leave the codes off its listing.

What's another problem? Most likely, you've heard this request: "Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed recently." Of course you have. What do you want to bet that you'll be hearing it a lot more often if catches on? I mean, come on. It's not as if companies actually want to have to talk to their valued customers. Heaven forbid. They'll be bobbing, weaving, and changing their menu options as often as it takes to successfully stay one step ahead of and to, what is their ultimate goal, avoid us customers like we're the plague or an insurance salesman.

Another issue is cost. Companies aren't doing this IVR thing just because they're run by a bunch of antisocial, reclusive twerps. OK, some of them are, but it's probably no more than 75%. The rest are doing it because it costs a lot less to frustrate us using computers rather than people. Computers can, after all, annoy us much faster than humans and computers take it in their stride when we justifiably but fruitlessly yell, scream, and swear at them. Humans tend to burn out quickly when hearing that hundreds of times a day, even though it may be equally justifiable and fruitless. And, because they don't suffer from human error, computers are much less likely to accidentally provide us with the help we are calling to get.

If we all learn the secret codes needed to break through the great wall that has been set up to separate us from customer service people, companies might have to start spending more money (or even some money) on customer service. And you know who's going to end up paying for that, don't you? It's not the CEOs. Then again, if you read the business papers, it seems a CEO's bonus is inversely proportional to the company's profitability, so it might be in his or her best interest to spend more of the firm's money on serving us and not raise prices to compensate for it. I'm not here to dictate to them. It's just a suggestion for any CEOs of the companies I buy stuff from who might be reading this. (If you are reading this, considering that your shareholders are paying you millions of dollars a year, don't you think it's time to get back to work?)

But what's the biggest problem with The biggest problem is that it currently lists codes only for the United States and the United Kingdom. The rest of the world needs to be united against these evil IVRs too. If or a copycat site doesn't expand the reach of this information to include Canada soon, I may have to move to the U.S. or U.K. to retain the microscopic shred of sanity I still possess. Oh, shut up. Yes, I do still have a shred.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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