03/16/2011 02:14 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Customer Is Always on Hold

What an age we live in. Just fifteen short years ago, who would have ever thought it possible to converse with a cyborg over the telephone? Never in my wildest dreams would I think to pick up my home telephone, dial 1-800-anything and reach a robot with a woman's voice that talked to me as if she truly wanted to be my friend. Will wonders never cease?

Of course, the reality of the situation is far from the technological utopia we all got sold on. Those ivory tower eggheads continue to fix things that are not broken, and we end up paying the price. When a human being answered the phone after calling a customer support line, what part was so unbearable that we had to relegate the task to an automaton? And now any corporation worth its salt has a robotic phone answering system. This is supposedly to weed out the callers who really don't need to speak to a human being. Unfortunately, I missed the memo that listed the sect of consumers who were no longer deemed worthy of human contact. Apparently, there are a growing number of us who fall into that particular category of which I am now a proud member. Robot-kind has seen fit to revoke my live-human conversation privileges. It all happened so fast.

The Monday began like any other, and I decided to order a product on the Internet with overnight shipping. Allowing for 24 hours of processing, I figured my package would arrive no later than Wednesday of the same week. When Tuesday morning came and went with no package shipping information, I decided to phone the company, and inquire as to my purchase. That's when I had the great honor to speak to "Alice," who was supremely enthusiastic about helping me with any issue I might be having. How lucky was I?

"Alice" asked me to tell her what my issue was. I said "online order," figuring that was descriptive enough to route my call to the proper department. Alice responded, "I think you said 'place an order.' Is that correct?" Of course, it wasn't correct, and I figured even a cyborg might make a mistake or two, so I told her again what I needed. "No, I need order information." Alice responded, sounding much more confident this time, "I think you said 'store locations.' Is that correct?" It was at this point I began to lose confidence in Alice's ability to converse at the level needed to satisfy my concerns. So, quaint as it was to speak to a robot, I decided it was time to let a good, old human being take over. "Agent," I said, knowing from past experience that the word "agent" is the key to fast-tracking calls to an operator who breathes oxygen.

Alice seemed agreeable, but she had a request: "In order to get you to the right person who can help you, I need you to tell me what type of issue you are having." OK, I thought, this time I would keep it short and sweet. "Orders," I said. Alice responded: "OK, you said 'offers.' Please hang on while I get someone!" After a short time contemplating the benefits of automation in our modern world, I was greeted by a human voice. Barely keeping my joy under wraps, I told the person on the other end of the phone that my order had not yet shipped, and he told me to hang on while he transfers me to the correct department. After holding for over ten minutes, I heard a female voice say "Hi, this is Alice!"

Although the names were changed to protect the innocent (or guilty), the story above is similar to experiences I have had on more than one occasion when contacting companies I conduct business with. When exactly did businesses forget that the customer is doing them a favor? We should be "always right," not kept at arm's length at all costs. I cannot count the number of times that I have been told to expect a call back from a supervisor or manager, only to call back hours later when no call comes. Even as recently as 15 years ago, stores that treated you well and remembered your name would be the places that got your business -- even if it cost a bit more. Treating the customer with respect and deference was a source of pride for the owners and customer service representatives, and it was the odd employee who acted otherwise. Today, the tables have been turned completely. Now, when we recall business dealings, we remark on the occasions that we have been given outstanding service because it so rarely happens. When did this become acceptable, and why have we let it continue? The power ultimately lies with us, the consumer. Unfortunately, most corporations realize that today's society determines value, in large part, by whether or not someone has the latest gadget or wears the latest fashion. Somewhere along the line in the last two decades, business leaders figured out that they could treat the consumer like trash because, like a "bad boy" date, we want what they have all the more.

I'm not naïve enough to think that consumers will read this and begin a groundswell movement that results in up-ending the way the game is currently played. At least we can be aware of what they are doing to us, though. Credit card companies charging 28 percent interest, banks lending money to anyone with a dollar in their pocket, people buying new cell phones every year -- these practices have led us to the brink of disaster. If you can believe it, I'm a capitalist at heart. I see nothing wrong with making a decent living; I just don't think it has to be done at the expense of societal and personal wellbeing.

So, in the future, if you end up speaking to a robot on the other end of the line, throw a wrench into the proverbial works. When the automaton asks you a question, speak gibberish in return. My favorites are "supercalifragilisticex" and "eep-opp-ork." You get the idea. Eventually, Johnny 5 will apologize and transfer you to a live human being. Now, understanding the human being -- well, that's another column entirely.