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May I talk to a person, please?

May I talk to a person, please?


Searching for a Kearney phone number a few days ago. I opened the telephone book, but it wasn’t there. Silly me. Phone books are as out of date as old Victrolas. Dozens of people and businesses aren’t even listed anymore.

I got online and finally found the number, but when I called, I got a recording with 1,001 options instructing me to hit this and delete that. Sigh.

I miss Hal Becker. About 20 years ago, he told the Solon (Ohio) Chamber of Commerce that hiring people to answer the phone, live, is the most critical thing a company can do to ensure its success.

Becker still is right, but the world no longer hears him. His wisdom has been drowned out by the shrieks of websites, “smart” phones (i.e., dumb phones) and a glut of high-fangled gizmos that businesses think “improve” customer service.

We live in the misinformation age. We’re so buried under websites, data, sales pitches, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that we can’t find the information we need. When we call, companies simply dump us onto a technological conga line waiting for a live operator. I think they’d rather we didn’t call.

Not long ago, I needed to call my dermatologist, so I sat down at my computer and began the arduous process of searching online. Frankly, it’d be easier to go out to a farmyard and kill a hen, pluck off each feather and roast it than undergo another hunt for minuscule data on the internet.

I punched the dermatologist’s name into the search box. Up popped, oh, 103,000 options listed on screen after screen after screen. I pity the businesses on the last page. Few people likely look that far.

A fat chunk of the names were ads. One site was some sleazy referral service with lots of exclamation points. By the time I found the number I’d passed my next birthday.

Early in April, I called the firm that handles my 401k. I was on hold for 25 minutes, repeatedly reminded that all calls are recorded for “quality and training,” whatever that means. Finally, I was hooked up with a curt, restless woman who, I suspect, had had a long day. So had I, but I didn’t matter. She promised to email me the information I requested, but she never did, which forced me to start the Information Death March all over again.

Many businesses no longer put their phone numbers or addresses on their websites. I suppose they theorize that customers use only email, but a website can’t always answer your questions. Calling lets you talk to a person — and isn’t that the point? Despite Zoom and computers, we need to talk to each other.

The computer is a marvelous invention, but it’s no substitute for human interaction. God gave us ears and voices, which let us interact, discuss, soothe and disagree; but electronics are becoming the contraption of choice. No wonder more people than ever feel isolated and lonely, even discounting COVID-19.

Last fall, I went to a party. About five of us gathered in the kitchen to cook and gab and sip wine, but one guest set her cellphone in front of her and guarded it as if it was pure gold. Was there a family emergency, someone asked? Was she expecting a critical business call? No, she said. She just — well, she’s addicted.

I know a young man who never turns off his cellphone. He has friends in other time zones — Boston, Denver and San Francisco — and he wants to be sure that, like Walmart, he’s always available. Calls wake him up at night, but that’s OK. He’s forever in touch. If that phone ever quits, he won’t know how to cope.

I chatted with Hal Becker two weeks ago. He’s close to retirement, but he still values the lessons he learned at the age of 22, when he was Xerox’s No. 1 salesperson nationwide, and later, as founder of Direct Opinions, a large customer service telemarketing firm.

He’s a champion of personal service. He values people. America needs him now, more than ever.

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