Ah, customer service. What joy that can bring to our lives, whether we are on the calling end or the receiving one. I have never been a customer service rep, but I imagine that it is no easy job. And, in fact, it is my realization of that reality that has led me to be as polite as I can for as long as I can when I am on the phone with someone whose job it often is to placate people who have been on hold for half an hour listening to something that is supposed to be music, which has been interrupted from time to time by recorded announcements telling you all the wonderful options you have with this company that you are calling because something they’ve done has made you very upset.
The other day, my attempt to be polite led to a very awkward moment.
I don’t want to identify the company or the situation, but let’s just say my wife and I had been having trouble with this particular business for about nine days. The situation had become somewhat desperate, so I was calling their weekend emergency number. Getting through had not been easy, but, finally, I was talking to someone — a live human being! And one in the United States. I think maybe in my state! This was exciting.
However, the conversation was not going well. This company, it turns out, had been having major troubles, and was getting lots of calls. Clearly, the customer service people were up to their eardrums in stress.
But all I knew were the difficulties we were having, and I found myself getting ever more exasperated.
Cool it, Mark, came my inner voice, and I listened.
The person with whom I was speaking said something that made little sense to me, but instead of giving in to my anger and uttering some choice epithets, I said, “Sir,…”
Bad choice. The person at the other end said, “I’m a ma’am.”
If this weren’t bad enough, I, with my 71-year-old ears, heard it as “man.”
So I said, “Yes, I know. That’s why I called you ‘sir.’”
I don’t remember what she said at that point, but I think it might have included the word “you.”
But at least I did get to talk with someone. We had a human interaction, even if it was one that probably made the person at the other end want to go back to drinking or to her therapist for an emergency visit. It’s when you can’t get through to a human being at all that you begin to feel that life is simply a meaningless exercise.
That happened to me the other day when I called a state office. I’ve dealt with this office before, so I always do so with trepidation. The waits are long, and the “music” (it’s really just a repetitive sound) they play while you are waiting could drive a deaf person insane. But they had updated the messages at their call center — which I suspect consisted of one very stressed-out person. So now they began with a message that can be very helpful. It’s the one that informs you of your expected wait time. For example, when you call Netflix, you may hear, “Your expected wait time is less than three minutes.” And it usually turns out that way.
But this was different. It said, “Your expected wait time is more than 30 minutes.”
More than 30 minutes? What did that mean? Forty minutes? Two hours? A week?
But I figured, Hey, what else do I have to do? If I live to 80, that still gives me almost nine years, so I have the time — although after eight years I am hanging up.
So I stayed on the line. And I kept hearing that rhythmic noise, interrupted by periodic silence, interrupted by recorded messages about what to do if you were this or that (neither of which I was). Even worse, every 10 minutes or so, it said, “Your expected wait time is more than 30 minutes.” Did this mean a new “more than 30 minutes”? How long would this go on?
And then, after 35 minutes, I heard, “Your expected wait time is 20 minutes.”
I was ecstatic. I was overjoyed. I hadn’t been this happy since the birthday party I had when I was six.
I began to think about the freedom I would have after someone answered my rather simple question. I really thought I would explode with joy.
But then, after about 15 minutes, there came this: “Your expected wait time is more than 30 minutes.”
It was then that I did what I should have done 50 minutes earlier. I hung up.
It took me a while to calm down, but then I saw the bright side. At least I hadn’t ruined some poor woman’s day by essentially telling her I thought she was a man.