Talking to People Instead of Machines
May 11, 2001
I had a very rare experience recently. I had occasion to call my car
insurance company, a large, faceless corporation located who knows
where. When you call a corporate 800 number you usually hear a cold,
formal electronic voice possibly coming from Mars, telling you which
button to push. But much to my amazement, a warm, friendly female voice
answered me. After I picked the phone up off the floor, I asked the
voice whether it was alive and a very pleasant woman assured me that
she was, and was there to help me. She was not on Mars after all, and
after a brief personal chat she took care of my business efficiently and
promptly. When we were through she asked me whether she could do
anything else for me. I said, "Yes, tell your boss that you have made a
friend for the company."
Thanks to that telephone call I am now permanently bonded to that
The whole process of shopping is - to put it mildly - different than it
was when I was a kid. My dad had a lumber yard and in the early days
he used teams of horses to pull the lumber wagons. I can remember his
saying that the most important person in the organization was the man
who drove the team. If that man was not polite and helpful to the
customer, the customer would probably be lost.
Telephone wires and cyberspace have taken over a lot of our personal
shopping, and we are trying to learn how to adapt to it with civility --
and not always succeeding. We have all heard of road rage. In the
privacy of our homes we are often dealing with telephone rage.
My hearing is bad and I have real trouble wading through the usual
" For this punch 1, For that punch 2, For something else punch 3." You
punch 3 and it starts all over again. Eventually, after a long,
complicated process involving many punches and starting over several
times, I can usually reach a live voice, but by then I have forgotten
what I wanted to know and am probably a bit testy.
Then of course there is e-mail purchasing which is even more mechanical
since you never do reach a live voice. But that's another story.
There must be some way to combine modern electronic magic with the human
touch, but we haven't figured it out yet.
Fortunately, what goes around comes around. Service is coming back.
Email buying is fine, but can't replace one-on-one in the forseeable
future. Huge discount stores have a real function, but they have not
yet pushed out the smaller service-oriented businesses. Some
corporations are returning to personal phone answers, as I found out
Retailers are discovering again that customers shop where they feel
welcome. Helpfulness and friendliness will keep the local stores
alive. If a salesperson looks you in the eye, smiles and acts as
thought she/he is glad you came in, you will probably go back there. I
do know that I shop in the stores that have friendly, courteous clerks,
and avoid those where I am made to feel like an intruder.
So can we learn to live with electronic purchasing? I guess we'll have
to, but not right away. Meanwhile we can still hunt out the local
stores with "friendly, alive voices," and help keep them alive.
Basic good manners are here to stay if we are to remain a civilized
society. They keep society from falling apart. James Russell Lowell
commented , "I have always been of the mind that in a democracy manners
are the only effective weapons against the bowie knife."
My friend the philosopher has a more modern version of the same idea,
the four way stop at a busy corner. She says that whether we stop
because we are polite, or to keep from being killed is a moot point.
Meanwhile, "Punch 1 for this. Punch 2 for that. Punch 3 if you haven't
the slightest idea which one to punch.