12:57 AM CDT, August 31, 2012
Trying to get a human on the line when you're trapped in some company's automated phone system is like whacking your way through a jungle with a pair of toenail clippers.
Impossible. Interminable. Maddening.
I am here today to offer two magic words to free you from the wilderness.
We've all been there: You have a problem. You need a person. Instead, you're trapped with a computer that keeps chirping, "I'm sorry. Did you mean ...?"¿
What I meant, @#$$%^, is: @#$! you.
And those, I regret to say, are the magic words.
On Thursday, when I mentioned on Facebook that I'd discovered the magic words — while politely refraining from saying precisely what they were — dozens of people speculated on what they might be.
Representative? Agent? Human? Operator? Person? Fraud? Cancel? Lawsuit?
Sorry. Those words are way too nice for the major bank I was dealing with the day I had my eureka moment.
I had phoned the bank on behalf of a relative who wasn't up to untangling a misunderstanding about his mortgage.
In the attempt to reach a human, I tried at least half of the nice words above. I punched "0." I deployed all the nice words again — agent! representative! — at louder volume. The computer voice yapped on.
Finally, the two magic words exploded, unbidden, from my lips.
Before the computer could finish telling me this call might be monitored, I was chatting with Rafael. My relative and I looked at each other, astounded. Had that really worked?
A few days later, lost in the phone loop with a different bank, I thought I'd give the magic words a try again, just for fun.
After it succeeded with yet a third bank, the two magic words graduated from fluke to tactic.
I'm not claiming that these two words always work. Maybe they only work with banks. These three banks. I recall a time a couple of years ago when in desperation I shouted the magic words only to have the computer voice tsk, "Goodbye!" like a parent convinced that the only way to manage a bad child was to leave the room.
But I've now met other people who swear that they, too, have benefited from the two magic words, though my friend Marie said the computer will respond just as well without the word "you."
I have mixed feelings about employing obscenity for this purpose, even if I am cursing only at a computer. As one acquaintance puts it: "I have had the F-word work several times. When it does send me through to a person, I always wonder if they know that. I picture a little flag on their screen that follows my account forever, like in 'Seinfeld' when Elaine's medical chart said she was difficult and she couldn't get rid of it."
I asked my colleague Jon Yates, who addresses the customer service call in his recent book, "What's Your Problem?" for polite alternatives.
Words like "agent" may work, he said, but he warned that some companies switch their computer systems once they figure out that too many customers have figured out easy access to humans.
"Just say gobbledygook," he said. "It confuses the computer into pushing you through to a human being."
Or just shut up.
"These computers require input," he said. "Play dead. Play possum. If it doesn't get input, it assumes you're on an old rotary phone and eventually puts you through to someone."
But he's all for the magic words if they're what work. Which I fear they won't for long, now that the secret's out.
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