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Wally Windsocket of Moose Butt, Minnesota, a customer service representative with Consolidated Bolts and Screws, is the answer to a question on the latest edition of Corporate Trivial Pursuit. Wally has been reliably identified as the last person in corporate America to actually answer a telephone. He has already sent his telephone headset to the Smithsonian.

An amiable fellow, Wally committed this historic act on April 14, 2003 quite by accident. He had been mistakenly allowed into the corporate customer service bullpen before he had been trained in modern corporate service techniques and rashly answered a phone because he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to.

By now, our Wally knows by heart the automated message that awaits all callers to Consolidated Bolts, and wouldn’t dream of just picking up a ringing phone. This cuddly message, slightly edited to make it more honest, goes in this wise:

“Thank you for calling Consolidated Bolts and Screws, sucker. Kick back, put your feet up and relax, because we’re going to jerk you around for as long as you’ll hold still for it. If you wish to be fobbed off in a language other than English, press two. We do this because we’re really important and busy folks here at Consolidated Bolts and don’t have time to screw around with peasants like you and your petty concerns. By the way, you could always go to our website to attempt to conduct your business there. But you should know that our site will make the obstacle course you had to deal with in basic training seem like a walk on the beach by comparison, and no one has ever successfully transacted any business on it.

“Please listen carefully, as our menu has changed. Ha! Of course it has. You didn’t think we’d leave it the same for a week running so that some damn fool could crack the code, did you? After you listen to about a dozen commercials for products you don’t want, we’ll give you our working hours and addresses, which you already know.

“Those of you who haven’t flaked out or fallen asleep by this point, may listen to an interminable list of numbers to press to deal with a list of situations that are scientifically engineered to not be remotely related to what you called in for.”

The recording doesn’t tell you, but callers with the toughness, the focus, and the extravagant amount of time on their hands to make it as far as the end of the options, will be, at last, rewarded by being put immediately through to another number, where the message will be, “Thank you for calling Consolidated Bolts and Screws, sucker….”

Nitpickers may accuse me of exaggerating, and perhaps I am just a bit. But I’m scratchy on this subject now as I’ve just returned from a trip to my bank that was unnecessary because my business could have easily been transacted over the phone. But what it took me about 20 minutes of phone time to understand was that the complicated bit was reaching my branch on the phone, not my business itself. It became clear that I was about as likely to break through the bank’s paralyzing phone tree — which should be ripped out root and branch — as Brer Rabbit was in getting a response from the Tar-Baby. (I don’t mention my bank’s name here, as it is no guiltier than just about every company in America above mom and pop size. And don’t even get me started on government agencies.)

The customer guy at my branch, a truly helpful, competent, and polite fellow it should be noted, told me that one of the options in the tree was “to talk to a branch (no pun intended) representative.” But I had been so anesthetized by the endless commercials and useless information about hours, locations, etc. (I know, I know this message may be recorded! Get on with it!) that I missed it. And soon after concluded that a two-mile drive to the branch office would involve far less time and heartache than playing phone-tree lotto, a mug’s game with about as much chance of striking it rich (getting through to an actual human being who could help) as winning the real state lotto (which in Florida is about the same as the chance of being struck by lightning while being bitten by a shark).

When I’ve grumped over the years about this obvious symptom of moral and cultural decay, as well as corporate tone-deafness, my business-major friends always try to teach me why this sorry business is not only necessary but is in fact an advancement in civilization. I’m as impenetrable to these explanations as my bank’s phone tree. My cyber/techno/business friends tell me these systems have been designed by competent and sophisticated teams of MBAs, computer geeks, highly trained industrial psychologists, marketing majors, corporate attorneys, sensitivity trainers, and consultants from out of town with really good Power Point presentations. So the results must be good.

Who am I, a Luddite by comparison to the worthies listed above, to question the new and improved way for customers to communicate with the companies that supply us with the goods and services we need and/or just want? But in my simple, non-techno approach to things, I can’t help but escape the conclusion that American corporations, faced with the question of how to communicate with their customers, could have saved a ton of money and come to a much more customer-friendly arrangement had they had just asked Wally.

Here’s a piece of free business advice I’m convinced will be worth far more than what the people who take it have to pay for it. Any American company wishing to be miles ahead of its competitors in customer service, and resultant customer satisfaction, could gain this advantage by the simple expedient of ANSWERING THE DAMN PHONE !!

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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