On Labor Day eve, I was watching TV and with my butterfingers, punched in 1000 on my Motorola Mobility remote control rather than the 100 that I wanted.
Instead of getting to CNN, I had hit on a pay-per-view wrestling match. So when I tried to get out, the on-screen box thanked me for my purchase. I quickly punched in 100 and got the CNN headlines I wanted. Immediately, I called Verizon Communications' FiOS customer service line, which is completely automated. The voice menu options didn't have what I wanted (cancel pay-per-view charge) so I naively pushed the number for billing and got a voice telling me I'd need my Verizon bill for a customer number.
Growing impatient, I went back to the main menu and when the voice-response system asked what I wanted, I said representative and I was put on music hold. After 18 minutes, a friendly, clearly American voice told me I was at the wrong place but that my wrestling charge would be canceled at another extension.
Another 19 minutes of music ensued. Then another friendly American voice said he would void the charge but then asked me to identify my residence and zip code and then, provide the approximate total of my monthly charge. That was easy because I'd reviewed September bills earlier in the day.
After 43 minutes, this two-second mishap was cleared up.
Three weeks ago, 45,000 unionized Verizon employees were on strike and I had a problem after a power failure. After six minutes, a helpful engineer told me what to do. So how come when everyone is back at work, another problem took 43 minutes?
The answer is that in cutting to the bone, U.S. companies have deployed computers, voice response products from makers like Nuance Communications and Comverse, and other tools that eliminate people. But everyone knows these systems are clumsy, not all that smart and make a customer waste time.
True, I made a mistake, but why must an otherwise satisfied Verizon customer have to waste 43 minutes on a Sunday night, especially when he has a firm commitment every night at 8?
Nothing will ever replace a human. While TechAmerica, the industry trade group, is expected to report early next year that tech sector employment fell yet again in 2010 and 2011, the bosses ought to know that as the U.S. observes Labor Day, only a human being can truly understand another one.