Tahlequah Daily Press

August 14, 2012

Robo-callers drive you nuts, even if they have names

Managing Editor

TAHLEQUAH — If you call the Daily Press on a weekend or after hours, you might get an automated voice instructing you on what button to push to get a certain department or employee. That’s frustrating for some folks, especially when the person to whom they’re routed no longer works here, and we haven’t had time to take the name off the menu.

But at least we don’t subject callers to an electronic voice posing as a live human being and trying, without luck, to hold a conversation.

I know we’re in the interactive age, but even the most enlightened and tolerant individual has to admit robo-receptionists can be annoying. As long as they’re merely offering you an option on which button to push, they’re tolerable. But when they urge you to interact with them, things get complicated. Or if you have the patience of a honey badger, the situation can culminate in a smart phone smashing against a wall.

Walt Disney World and Disneyland lead the fray on robo-reception. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge Disney fan. My husband grew up 13 miles from Disneyland, and his parents still live there; my sister and her family live in the suburbs near WDW. We’ve been to both several times, and hope to visit several more. But getting past the cheerful electronic voice to snare a live – and usually just as cheerful – “cast member” can make a harried caller cop a lousy attitude toward the mouse.

Disney doesn’t have a toll-free number, which is irksome enough for the long-distance caller who must wait in line behind other Mickey maniacs to make reservations. But at least the ‘lectronic lady doing the deed for Disney doesn’t presume to have a name. Other entities with whom I do business live by the credo that if the voice has a name, the customer will respond more positively.

We bank with TTCU, and the robo-receptionist is called “Marcia.” In case you Brady Bunch fans are wondering how she responds to the quip “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” it’s with befuddlement; I’ve tried. I had gotten used to the system TTCU employed for years, and had developed a cordial relationship with Marcia. But then, TTCU switched to a new electronic lineup, which required many customers to choose new IDs and passwords. And you have to go through some robo-dude now to get Marcia.

I’m wondering if any of this has to do with that Atem Cash super-hero dude TTCU adopted as its mascot – a guy with a green costume sort of like Batman, only without the ears. I’ve asked a TTCU employee, Alicia, the wife of Sports Editor Ben Johnson; she doesn’t know, either. In its ads and PR campaigns, TTCU treats Marcia as an acronym – MARCIA – but neither Alicia nor anyone else I talked to could tell me what it stood for. I won’t all-caps anything unless it stands for something; that’s just how we journalists roll. And besides, in online parlance, all caps-ing words, and especially entire sentences, is likened to “shouting” and is thus considered rude.

TTCU isn’t alone in the personalization. Amtrak has “Julie,” who will help you with a reservation, or tell you if a train is running on time. If you respond to a question with “I already have a reservation” and want to change it, you’ll get rerouted to a live person, who typically isn’t quite as nice as the Disney cast member. Here’s a neat bit of trivia: The voice of “Julie” belongs to a real woman: Julie Seitter, a chick about my age who lives with her husband and two sons in Massachusetts.

But whether the robo-receptionists have names or remain ensconced in anonymity, they have a few things in common: They’re usually female, they’re always cheerful, and none of them understand Okiespeak. Neither do they comprehend the “American” enunciation of certain names. My married name is “Cisternino,” and I always have to pronounce it the Italian way – “Chee-stair-nee-noe,” with rolled “r” – rather than “Sister-Neeno,” the American way. Perhaps it’s because the American way suggests I’m a nun, or have a brother named “Nino.” That confusion has occurred even talking one on one to other live humans.

The faux female always wants to collect “just a little bit of information” from you. And when you try to answer a question “so I can get you to the right person,” you’re likely to be misunderstood. The rob-receptionist will apologize: “I’m sorry, but I didn’t get that,” and repeat the query – as if the second time around, you might be able to adopt a proper British accent. This will happen a few more times, until your blood pressure is spiking and Robo Rita finally concedes defeat and puts you in queue to talk to a live human, who generally gets the job done.

I think I’ll write letters to the purveyors of robo-callers and suggest special messages for certain groups of customers. Julie or Marcia, or whoever she is, could answer with, “Hi. If you’re from most places in the world, press 1 for further instructions on what buttons to push. But if you’re from Oklahoma, press 2 to get a live person who understands  your accent. And if you’re from Cherokee County and you haven’t used your free killin’ yet, press pound to expedite your call.”