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If you find automated phone systems annoying, press 9; to complain, stay on the line


In the general category of life’s little irritants: anybody besides me absolutely hate automated phone answering systems?

You know the ones I mean, because if you have a doctor or a dentist or want to call your newspaper or accountant or just about any other large (and often small) business, you’ve been forced to sit through a spiel that seemingly gives you infinite choices from which to select.

If you call the Watertown Daily Times, for example, there is an almost mind-numbing array, ranging from zero to nine, to be directed to the correct department. Thankfully, one of the first options you’re given when you call us is to speak to an operator, which, when things are going well and the ghosts are out of the machine, sends you to a human being. And isn’t that what we’re trying to do — TALK to someone?

The Times has an evening and holiday recording that is different, pointing callers to the news room, which generally has someone available to answer a phone, or circulation, which often has someone there. How that works, though, is that if you call the Times after hours or on holidays and you want to speak to someone in the mail room, you generally start with someone in the news room who doesn’t actually know what you’re talking about when you ask for Tina.

After two or three rounds of “Tina WHO?” and “Sorry, there’s no Tina here,” there is a significant temptation to give up.

The most frustrating tool (and I use that word with a deep sense of irony) in the automated phone system arsenal is the “staff directory,” where you’re supposed to be able to seek someone’s extension so as to go directly to the person you want. Try using a phone’s number pad to look for Smitherington. You’ll never get enough of the name typed in (“Let’s see, that’s 7, 6, 4, 8, 4...”) to find anyone.

I called a major research institute the other day on some news business and got the dreaded automated phone system. The disembodied voice assured me that if only I knew my party’s extension, I could avoid the subsequent 90 seconds of torture. I didn’t, so I had to listen to all the choices. When it was done, there was no satisfactory answer for me, so I used the only tactic I had — I just hung on and listened. After about 15 seconds, the voice said that I would be directed to the reception desk.

“There you go,” I thought, “that’ll be just fine.”

I hardly had fleshed out that thought when I got this from the mechanical voice: “You are being directed to a receptionist’s voice mail. After the tone, please leave a message...”


The number of businesses that have turned to automated phone answering systems has bloomed in the past few years. Now, you never know if you’re going to be speaking to a person or a computer.

Just as a little test, I called four Watertown businesses to see what I’d get. Three of them were automated systems.

The only place I called where a human picked up was Walmart. I was so surprised I didn’t know what to say for a moment, then I introduced myself and told her why I was calling.

“I think we might have a machine that answers at night,” she said, which would make sense — the store is open 24 hours a day, but most departments aren’t manned that many hours. Still, the human touch was nice.

I can remember, as a kid, that my parents’ phone number was 4068. That was it — four numbers. Call my house from anywhere in our town or adjacent towns, all you needed was four numbers. Telephone service is not what it was.

I’m not a Luddite. I embrace technology. I’ve grown to like my smartphone. But sometimes, I just want to hear a human voice — not “to pay your bill, press 4...”.

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