Spiritual Adventures in the Workplace

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Phone Trees, and the People Who Hate Them

Stand up in a public place sometime and ask, “How many of you hate phone trees?” and you’ll probably get a lot of takers. One of modern life’s biggest pains is hearing a recorded message that says, “If you are calling about A, B, or C, press 1. If you are calling about D, E, F, or G, press 2,” and so on. Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to make a choice? You dial the phone and a human being answers, and he or she helps you. What’s so hard about that?

Well, it is hard. Like it or not, we live in a highly complex society with lots of choices, and people call an 800 number for a wide variety of reasons. No matter how much we may detest them, phone trees satisfy a real need: they route us to the people who can give us the particular kind of service we’re calling about.

As a call center representative, I am grateful that my company’s phone tree works as well as it does. Oh yes, I listen sympathetically to callers who complain that there was no appropriate option, and then after I ask a few more questions, I usually tell them that they’re in the right place and I’ll be glad to help them. Sometimes I have to transfer them to another extension, but they got to the right place even then: they were routed to me (a human being), who assessed their need and decided which department was right for them. Either way, the phone tree did its job.

The truth is, phone trees work well most of the time. And when I say “most of the time,” I mean way more than 50% of the time. Every company keeps statistics on the number of calls received, and out of that total, how many were serviced by the automated system, how many had to be routed to a human being, how many were transferred a second time, and so on. For any of the companies I’ve worked for, a large majority of calls are handled entirely by the automated system, and those that reach me were properly routed. We all have our horror stories, of course, but they truly are exceptions. If they weren’t, then our society would come to a grinding halt.

And in recent years, voice recognition software has become so sophisticated, we can have a conversation with a friendly-sounding computer while we wait to be routed to a human being. (And let’s be honest. Sometimes the human being isn’t nearly as friendly as the digital person was.)

There is, however, one significant issue that’s worth thinking about, over and above our natural distaste for talking to computerized voices. The people who program those phone trees give a lot of thought to their jobs. There’s a philosophy behind what they’re doing. They’re intelligent people (highly intelligent, I should say), and they have certain views about the world and about human nature that they’re programming into those phone trees.

Lately it has seemed to me that their philosophy is this: It isn’t about who you want to talk to; it’s about what you’re calling about. You may think you want to talk to Department A, but you’re wrong. We know better than you do. Tell us what you’re calling about, and we’ll tell you who you need to talk to.

Like I said, these are very intelligent people. Maybe they do know better than we do. Maybe we’re in good hands, and we should just sit back and go for the ride. But the problem is, Sometimes we really do need to talk to Department A, but the phone tree isn’t programmed that way. It can only help us if we tell it what we want, not who we want.

So then WE have to get smart. We experiment. We try different options and write down where they take us. Before long, we’ve learned our own way around the labyrinth, and we choose the options without listening to the recording. “Pleeeease listen carefully,” the voice cries out, but we don’t. “Our menu options have changed,” the voice warns us, but we know they haven’t. We used these options just last week and everything worked fine. When things stop working fine, then we’ll listen again. Until then, no thanks.

But phone trees really do accomplish their mission most of the time. I think we should admit that more than we do. We should also recognize all the thinking and planning that goes into them. Having said that, however, we should be aware that they’re based on a certain philosophy, and that philosophy may not always be the best one for every situation. But since the people who program them are smart (very smart, I should say), maybe they’ll figure that out. Who knows? Maybe they already have.

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