Awash in Answering Machines
The craze for answering devices seems to be getting out of hand. Recently, I called my favorite delicatessen to see if they had their homemade chicken soup. Instead of reaching the proprietor, I received the following greeting:
“Thank you for calling Paul's Delicatessen. Your call is very important to us.” If it's so important, why don't they pick up the phone? “For quality assurance, this call may be monitored.” By what – another machine? “Please select from the following options: If you are calling to order Paul's famous whole roast turkey, carved and put back on the frame, please say, ‘I am calling to order Paul's famous whole roast turkey, carved and put back on the frame.’ If you are not calling to order Paul's famous whole roast turkey, carved and put back on the frame, please say, ‘I am not calling to order Paul's famous whole roast turkey, carved and put back on the frame.’ ” By this time, I was shouting into the phone, “Chicken soup, chicken soup!” The machine replied, “Invalid option” and hung up.
So I walked 23 blocks to Paul's Delicatessen. Paul told me, “There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is, we ran out of chicken soup. The good news is, we have terrific cabbage borscht.” “All right, I'll take a quart. But Paul, about this answering system –” “It's great! I haven't talked on the phone in months and business is better than ever.”
“But I walked all the way here because I wanted chicken soup and you were out of it.” “Exactly. And if I had said that over the phone, you wouldn't have come. Instead, here you are, buying a quart of cabbage borscht. I rest my case.”
I was fascinated by this marketing concept and made an appointment with the president of the Gotcher Answering Machine Company. When I asked him about the proliferation of these message systems, he explained, “Downsizing. For example, one company, with three branch offices in the city, now needs only one customer service person to handle all the calls. All day long she bicycles from branch to branch, answering the phone in each office as she arrives. Meanwhile, the machines in the other offices are saying, ‘All of our representatives are taking care of other customers. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in turn.’ ”
“But don’t the callers get impatient?” “ Our surveys show that the average caller becomes impatient after holding for 22 minutes. So after 21 minutes, the machine hangs up. This feature is called the Benevolent Automatic Termination Service, or BATS. It's very popular with the Postal Service, the Internal Revenue Service, and all other government agencies whose titles include the word ‘Service.’ ”
I couldn't resist a bit of sarcasm. “I suppose the day will come when a person dials the 911 emergency line and gets your machine.” Mr. Gotcher smiled complacently. “We're working on it.”