By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.

Elizabeth Anne Hull

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re comfortable with the Internet. I can’t say I am, not at all. Oh, I’ve been using email since the middle ’90s, and though it sometimes goes on strike, I feel pretty much at ease with it.

Surfing? I don’t do it. I sometimes look up something I’m interested in, especially medical information. But shopping on line? I try my best to avoid it, even when prices are cheaper there than in the stores. As far as I know, nobody has ever figured out how much stress is worth in monetary terms.

I do like to look at color pictures in catalogs, just to get ideas about what’s available and have a general grasp of prices and optional features of any given product. But before actually plunking down my cash or credit card, I prefer to handle the goods, try on the dress, squeeze and sniff the fruit, and generally judge the fit in a mirror and decide whether the quality of the merchandise justifies the price.

Of course, there are some things that everyone is pretty much familiar with, like airline tickets, that one doesn’t need to touch or smell. But I would still prefer to work with a human agent, either in a ticket office (all gone now, alas!) or at least on the phone. The irony is that the public has been squeezed in both directions, with the carrot-lure of lower prices on the Internet, and the stick-disincentive of what I call voicemail jail. For example:

“Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line.” If it really were important to you, why do you want to take up my time? (Answer: Customer’s time doesn’t show on the payroll.)

“I’m either away from my desk or on another line. I can’t take your call right now. If you are calling during regular business hours and you’d like to leave a message, please do so at the sound of the beep. We’ll get back to you within twenty-four hours.” If you’re not calling during business hours, some systems simply tell you, “Please call back when our office is open.”

Don’t get me wrong. Socially I like voicemail. It’s especially useful when I need to leave a message to a bunch of people, say about a meeting, and I don’t need — or sometimes even want — an immediate reply. In that case, talking to people slows me down, because there are all the social niceties of “how are you?” and “what’s new in your life?” that make getting through that list of ten or twenty names much more time consuming. But when I’m calling an insurance company to resolve a billing issue, or calling to see if a store sells some brand I prefer before I make the trip (or if they don’t, maybe they know who does carry it), or calling to complain that my cable is out again, twenty-four hours is too long to wait for a response. The worst is calling a doctor’s office because doctors’ staff seem to expect that callers will sit home, having nothing else to do except wait by the phone for the next twenty-four hours.

“Thank you for your patience.” I don’t have any patience, and it’s irritating to be thanked for something I don’t have a choice about.

“Please listen carefully to our menu, as our options have changed.” This is almost invariably followed by a menu of six choices, none of which fits the situation for which I want help. And none of which is “none of the above.” Sometimes the customer is expected to go through at least four or more menus before discovering that “none of the above” is actually the only correct category. The result: voicemail jail.

Does anyone besides me remember the days when there used to be sales that you could only take advantage of if you were actually in the retail store? Now it seems that it’s nearly always cheaper to buy via the Internet. That is, if you don’t count the total time that it takes to shop online versus the time it would take in a store, and the fact that serendipity in the actual store often shows me options that I would not have thought of myself. For me, even including the time spent getting to the retail store, it almost always takes less time to deal with a human salesclerk, face to face, and I usually am better satisfied with whatever I finally decide to buy.

Moreover, a bad or indifferent sales clerk may not help much, but usually doesn’t cause as many problems as a poorly written, non-user-friendly program. And a good salesclerk is worth her weight in gold. Not that she’s usually paid anywhere near her value, even if she’s paid on commission, which is rare these days in most retail stores.

I wonder how well the people who stock the shelves and fill the on-line orders are paid. And how much do the people who write those COIK (Clear Only If Known) programs make?

Anybody besides me regard all these changes as regress, not progress?


  1. John H says:

    There is certainly something to be said about the personal touch you get from a live person. But for most items I actually prefer to search the Internet, not only to find the right item but the best price for it. The exceptions would be fresh food (like fruit or meat) and clothes — I don’t trust online grocers to have the discerning eye I would have, and buying clothes online is just asking for something that doesn’t fit properly.

    I’m not much a phone person. If I can’t see the person I’m speaking to I’d much rather just send them an email or text message so I at least have the chance to edit what I’m wanting to say before sending it.

    And as for phone menus, nothing is worse than those that make you say the option you want rather than use the keypad. Most of them will still accept the keyed response (even if they don’t tell you which button to press) but some won’t take anything but a verbal response. The people who designed those systems are evil and should be cast out of society.

    Overall I would say they’re neither progress nor regress, just different. On the one hand, the personal touch of a good or adequate salesperson is better than nothing. But on the other hand, those people cost the company money and ultimately drive up the cost of the product. Airlines used to pride themselves on their customer service — now flying coach on an airline is more or less what you would expect on a Greyhound bus. Why? Customer service costs money, so you only get it in first class these days. The upside is coach tickets are pretty cheap, so most people can still afford them.

  2. Laughing Muse says:

    You know, on almost all phone trees, you can just hit “0” and get a real live person right away. (Not all…but most of them.)

  3. PJ says:

    Sorry to disagree, but…

    I’m happy that I can order diapers and wipes for my 2yo from my laptop before I manage to forget that he’s almost out again and have to run to the store. I’m happy that I can order and instantly download ebooks from and then always have them ‘within reach’ on my cellphone (which never leaves my side) so that when I’m standing in a physical line (to see a movie or waiting to check out of a brick-and-mortar store), I’m guaranteed a good book to read. I’m happy I can easily research a product (using everything from personal recommendations to Consumer Reports) and then act on that research no matter the weather or time of day.

    Voicemail jail is definitely a downgrade from someone answering the phone – but I’ve got zero qualms about forwarding any number I can’t identify straight there if I’m on the receiving end.

    I’ll agree that bad software is worse than an indifferent clerk, but on the other hand I think good software is better than an indifferent clerk, and while the choice of a clerk is often luck of the draw, I can choose to only buy from sites with good software.

    My forays into brick-and-mortar stores are fairly few, but the limited selection (They’ve got A->B cables, and A->C cables, but no B->C cables? erg. Oh, and of course they don’t stock accessory D because that’s limited to only certain stores that are certified blah blah. *sigh*), higher prices (as you noted), and typically poor customer service (salesclerks just want to sell you stuff, they don’t want to educate you about it, and I’ve never yet heard one discourage me from wasting my money on any item) don’t make those trips exactly highlights of my consumer experience. There are definite exceptions – typically smaller businesses who care more about actually helping their customers than taking them for their last dollar – but they’re definitely exceptions and are being slowly pushed out of business by ‘big box’ and chain stores that have all the charm of a Vogon. That said, those exceptions are some of my favorite places: my local boardgame shop (where even they have told me to go check ebay for an out-of-print game that I was looking for), my local small bookshop (if you can call BookPeople ‘small’), and the like.

    But I’m afraid overall, you’d have to put me in the ‘pro’ column.

  4. David Dyer-Bennet says:

    Sorry, I generally like things now better. I regarded being hounded by salespeople in stores as a major disadvantage of going into stores; and they never really knew anything anyway. I’ve been doing mail-order and phone-order since the 1970s, and generally like it a lot. A few things, like camera bags, I really need to fondle to get a solid opinion on, so I buy those locally mostly — though even there, they often don’t have the model I really want, and I’m forced to order based on fondling a similar model.

    What I hate most — salesmen in stores telling me they can order what I want, and have it in only ten days. Get real, guys; I can have it at my house tomorrow morning, if I’m going to order it.

  5. Gary McGath says:

    There’s something much worst than the voicemail you mention, and that’s the answering bots that attempt Genuine People Personalities. Sears has one of these. Every time I have to deal with its fake friendliness, I want to strangle it even though there’s nothing to strangle.

  6. John H says:

    The most ridiculous moment of voicemail jail — when they interrupt their mind-numbing muzak to thank you for holding. Yes, because that’s how I wanted to spend my morning, sitting on terminal hold in your phone system.

    One time I was waiting on hold for literally an hour (I think it was with Gateway Computers) when a recording came on and said I had been on hold too long, and that I should call back later. It then hung up on me without any warning.

    I can’t imagine why they lost so much business…

  7. Michael Walsh says:

    For the “small press” book publisher the ‘net has been salvation. The chain bookstores carry pretty much only the major players and there are just a handful of SF specialty shops left in the US.

    There is one thing I do dislike about voice mail: people who when leaving a message rush through their phone number making me replay far too many times their message, which grows more & more boring.

  8. Lee Gold says:

    I webshop for stuff I used to be able to buy at the grocery store or supermarket but can’t get there any more. My local Indian grocery stores used to carry Rajah tandoori masala spice cans, but don’t any more, but Amazon does. My local supermarkets used to carry Chutnut brand chutney but don’t any more, but I found a place in NYC that did and ordered a dozen. And then there’s a brand of curry powder, and there’s jars of orange and lemon zest, and packets of beef tea (though I’d prefer jars of it) and other canned or jarred food stuff.

    I found a bra I liked at a department store, but I bought more of them from Amazon.

    I bought a DVR and then a DVR/VCR and then a printer from Amazon, and I also bought printer toner there too.

    I got an Amazon Visa card, which lets me accumulate points towards buying stuff there, including books.

    I buy loose-fitting clothes from Blair.

    But I’d never buy a purse or shoes (even if I found a webstore that believed I have extra-wide 5.5 shoe size) on the Web, let alone fruits and vegetables.

  9. Teri says:

    The worst are the ones that want you to speak a response. I generally speak clearly, but never seem to be able to get the machine to understand. Customer Service! I say. “I’m sorry, we did not understand, please speak your request again.” I could scream (unfortunately, I sometimes do).

    I dread all calls to mega-entities now, because I know a nice chunk of my day will be wasted, and my problem will most likely not be resolved. Sigh. I’m with you, I prefer the days of “Hello, may I help you?”

    What I do like most about the internet is information gathering and keeping in touch with faraway friends!

  10. Chookie says:

    In Sydney, the railway people call the automatic station \’voice\’ Sonia, because she getSonianerves…

    I must say I like online grocery shopping, because I hate supermarkets, and I tend to spend too much when I go shopping. But what I like is the online communities I\’ve found, especially when they turn into real-life friendships among people who share an interest.

    And speaking as a librarian, digitisation work (as done by your Library of Congress) is just fantastic, opening up so much good-quality material to researchers everywhere.

  11. supergee says:

    If I have to ask questions, I want to talk to an actual person. Otherwise, I want an asynchronous, impersonal process that gets it done. Voice mail offers neither.

  12. Neil in Chicago says:

    If the bot on the phone does “voice recognition”, try repeating the word “operator” instead of a number, and after three or four repetitions, it often switches you to a human. (It may be a minimum-wage human on another continent, but that’s the next gripe, not this one.)

  13. Johanothan says:

    Mr Pohl you can also jump up most phone hold queues by randomly and many times pressing the three buttons * 0 # on your phone and saying the two words – human – and – operator.