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Domestic Bliss


I used to be a nice person. Really, I was pleasant for the most part, patient and generally forgiving of most inconveniences.

But that was before the age of automated customer service. Ever since big companies started buying up smaller local companies and replacing human helpers with computerized voices and the Bermuda Triangle of voice mail communication, I have become a bitch on wheels, an angry consumer, a raging against the machine neo-Luddite who wishes sabotage and system breakdowns on every bank, insurance company and mortgage corporation in America.

Days that start out sunny are darkened by the madness of miscommunication now deemed customer service. I can start the day whistling a happy tune and turn into a snarling demon within five minutes of being put on hold, a jaunty Muzak rendition of "Just My Imagination" swirling in my ear while an automated voice assures me over and over, "Your call is very important to us."

Oh yeah? If so, then why not have an actual living, breathing human being capable of understanding a customer's needs answer it?

Recently, my son and I were involved in an automobile accident in which our little Subaru was rendered a total loss -- kaput, dead, bent in half, gone. This, combined with a recent move from one house to another, has put me in the unpleasant position of having to communicate daily by telephone with my insurance company, the other driver's insurance company, the rental car company, the mortgage company and several other vendors of financial services. And while I'm grateful that both I and the other driver were adequately insured, and indeed that none of us are dead, I'd like to know why I have to navigate the maze of adjusters, claims agents and customer service representatives like some sort of stealth fighter, blindfolded and muzzled as I wade through murky acres of legalese, justification and eternal bureaucratic process.

Simply put, it adds insult to injury.

When did this turn of events occur? I can remember the simplicity of the new phenomenon of drive-up banking back in the '60s when my sisters and I lined up in the backseat of our mother's station wagon to visit our favorite teller, Cleetie, who always cheerfully serviced my mother's account and handed out lollipops to boot. And though it sounds like an event from another century, another universe now, I can remember our family doctor, Dr. McElvoy, who knew the specifics of every family member's needs without even consulting a chart. At the end of our visit, my mother paid the smiling receptionist who didn't look at her sideways, inquiring whether she was insured or not.

So imagine this scenario. I'm fresh out of the emergency room with a head injury and a sprained back. I feel urgent about contacting my insurance company and finding out the status of my crushed automobile. I want instructions on how to proceed. I desperately need a car. I reach a chirpy recorded voice that offers me 10 push-button options, the last being the one I need. I press 5 for a customer service representative, who then sends me to an operator, who then sends me to the claims department, which then refer me to "total loss."

Total loss. I'm sad and shaken enough already, and now I have to speak to someone or something called total loss. Tears are creeping down my cheeks as I am swept back into the vacuum of hold. This time a jazzy saxophone and strings rendition of "Brandy" serenades me as I hold for five, six, seven minutes. Finally, a human voice, weak and distant, answers. "Customer service. How can I help you?" I explain to her that I'm holding for total loss. She says she will put me through but I'm not buying it. I can't take another five minutes on hold or another turn on the freak show merry-go-round of voice mail. "Please," I beg her. "The last person I spoke to told me they were putting me through to total loss, and I ended up here! Don't put me on hold again!"

I can tell by her breath that she thinks I'm crazy. I am. I'm delirious. I'm mad, I'm full-fledged, all-out insane. I can't take it any more. "If you'll just wait, ma'am," she condescendingly assures me, "I'll connect you with total loss."

I'm grieving now, trying to remind myself that it's our car, not my life, not my son's life that's a total loss, when a cheerful voice on the other end coos, "Good afternooon, you've reached total loss." She tells me what I need to know and refers me back to claims.

Six days later, I'm still on the merry-go-round. Customer service circles 'round and 'round, it seems, and I can't get off, much less get through. I have begged, bargained and screamed at nameless, faceless representatives. I'm not a nice person any more, and civility, it seems, is a total loss in the purgatory of automated customer service.

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