RICHMOND — “Please wait on the line for the next available representative.”
You can call to book an X-ray or buy a golf shirt, and the words are the same. Dismaying, exhausting, annoying. It is also a warning. Put the phone on speaker if you can.
You may have time to cook dinner, bake a cake or practice a Beethoven sonata on your piano.
And speaking of Beethoven, if you’ve been missing afternoons at Tanglewood, you may be listening to long segments of classical music in between the return of the “please wait on the line…” or the ubiquitous “This call may be recorded for training purposes.”
Ah, training. A major national retail outfit answered with all of the above familiar phrases and predicted the wait would be 5 to 10 minutes. I punched speaker and knocked several items off my to-do list before Pammy came on the line. All cheery, she took down my information (they had e-mailed me with a question, hence my call), and then announced she would have to ring up customer service to take care of me.
Phone Novocain set in. Now I’m on hold. Pammy came back to announce another 5 to 10 minute wait. The afternoon was vanishing into the telephone maw, but I just said thank you and pressed speaker. A symphony later, she returned to say I should probably call back. They were so busy with so much business; I must have groaned so she added that she supposed she could ask them to call me. Made sense since it was their call to begin with.
Today? I asked. She wasn’t sure. Would I be home? For the next 15 hours, I said. Nothing happened. Twenty-four hours later, back from the post office, I had a message from Bridget. I returned her call, with all of the above nonsense repeated and, after many minutes passed, I was cut off. Dial tone. We connected the next morning and, once the business was done, I asked to speak to a supervisor. “I am the supervisor,” she said. I told her they needed to answer the phone if they were serious about selling things, and they needed to hire more people, especially at a time when so many were unemployed, and they needed to stop planning on an endlessly patient public. She said something about they were hiring all the time and training time was needed, etc., etc., etc.
That was at Land’s End, but the big retailer is not unique. Try calling for a medical appointment and get the “please remain,” plus commercials about Berkshire Medical Center’s awards, the possibility of five different keys to press and the threat that your story “may be recorded for training purposes.” Often, one of the first answers is to say, “If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911.” If I’m choking or having a heart attack, one call might be all I could manage. So, why not have a Press 1 option for an emergency and get a direct connection?
We’ve been sick of this nonsense for too long. Years ago, waiting for the “next available” at a major airline, a pleasant young man finally answered and was at first bewildered when I said, “How many available agents do you have?” Two, he confessed reluctantly. Just two right now. Then he dealt with my questions.
Most doctors have streamlined their schedules so patients don’t sit an hour in a potential petri dish of illness before their appointment comes around. TV repairmen and plumbers no longer say they’ll come by tomorrow or the next day — they set a time frame of one or two hours. With the speed and sophistication of today’s electronics, patients and customers should not be the constant victims of phone systems that stretch out endlessly and might make you forget why you called. Was it a golf shirt? Or an X-ray?