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Getting your telephone call returned by a seller these days is like the weather — everyone complains about it, but nobody seems able to do anything about it. The domination of business callees is increasing rapidly over frustrated consumer callers.

One would think that with the telecommunications revolution, getting through to a live human being should have become easier. But if automation is seen as replacing the vendors’ employees, as all the major airlines except Southwest (usually two rings and a human operator answers) have been doing, the incentive is to generate more and more wasting of your time and gnashing of your teeth.

This automated answering binge opens the door to lucrative consulting firms that show companies how they can become even more humanly remote from their customers — their bread and butter. In the old Soviet Union, shoppers stood in long lines hoping the shelves would not be empty before they reached the counter. In our country, tens of millions of Americans are told to press a bewildering variety of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. for several tiers sometimes, then be put on hold, waiting, waiting, waiting.

When those periodic productivity figures come out showing how our economy is becoming more efficient, you can be sure that the people staffing these indicator engines are not cranking in the tens of billions of lost hours that are taken from consumers. But then productivity, like the definition of efficiency, is determined within the corporation world, to the exclusion of the costs heaped onto the world at large.

The Wall St. Journal published an article on May 8th whose headlines told the story: “In Search of the Operator — Firms spent Billions this year to make it hard to find one; how to reach a real person.” Reporter Jane Spencer writes that “U.S. companies this year are spending $7.4 billion to beef up their automated customer service” to make it harder than ever to reach a real person, even if you press zero.

Too many of you (40% according to one survey) are quickly punching zero to bypass the recorded voice and reach a human. So, companies are placing a secret code or have you say a magic word to reach a live voice. “It can take as many as five levels of queries to find a person at Compaq,” Spencer found. Before it is changed, quick call 1-800-OKCOMPAQ.

To drain away human contact further, some companies, such as Wells Fargo and KeyCorp, are charging less favored (read less affluent) customers $1 and $2 if they talk to an agent too many times in one month. For one bank, more than three times is to much. The computer breeds further stratification; BMW, reports the Journal, charges customers “$5 if they speak with a person to make a payment that can be made on the automated system.” I wonder when friendly, long-time customers will be charged if they call a teller and ask about their ailing relative.

So, if you are a persistent caller, you search for the codes, since, more and more, pressing zero takes you back to the “main menu” or disconnects the call. For your convenience, the Journal printed a list of 25 companies and how you can reach an operator. For instance, you can hit zero three times or press star twice (once per menu) or “no easy escape.”

Different industries have different hold times. Spencer writes that “if you’re calling a tech-support center, grab a Tolstoy novel. Forty-minute waits are common. . . The latest computer-assisted devolution is to detect who you are before deciding how to treat you. “It” asks you questions and if you turn out to be a big spender you’re given royal treatment — a human operator. Imagine your grandparents, used to the old telephone of theForties and Fifties, reading these words. Is this progress or regress?

After spending better parts of an hour on hold by U.S. Air a few years ago, I called CEO Steve Wolfe to complain. He had not known of his customers’ long holding time, tried it himself over the next week and then told me he was hiring 250 more operators. That was a rare ray of sunshine.

Now what would free-marketeers say? That customers have made a rational decision. For maximizing their utility by spending time this way instead of say — being with their children, marching in protest, or doubling up by doing aerobics while waiting.

Why do customers patronize these businesses? Because if they “go across the street,” to a competitor, the same automated systems rear up. Where there is a company offering human beings with discretionary answers, instead of rigid automated recordings, there should be a competitive edge. Ask Southwest Airlines or Federal Express, for example. But the trend seems to be going the other way. From bad to worse.

So, dear reader, figure out a way to fight back and make them pay for disrespecting your time. Or find a way to double-up. Some years ago, while working late at night, I would call United Airlines in order to listen to classical music.