I don’t know about you, but calling any business with what’s called an interactive voice response drives me up the wall.  I find myself yelling into the phone because the computer or whatever it is can’t figure out what I’m saying.  Well, this weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran Stephen Moore’s column entitled “Press 9 for More Options” which reflects my feelings exactly.  Enjoy!

Press 9 for More Options by Stephen Moore

One of the deep mysteries of modern life is why, in a nation with some 14 million unemployed people, it has become nearly impossible to call a store, a business or a government agency and speak to a live human being. I’m not a Luddite; I don’t rage against the machine; and I’ve always argued that the digital age is making life better in almost every way. But there are some things even in the 21st century that humans still do better than robots. One of them is providing customer service on the telephone.

Telephone answering services—or what the industry calls “Interactive Voice Response”—gets my vote for the runaway worst invention of the last half-century. They should call them anti-customer retention devices.

Airlines (with the exception of Southwest, which almost always picks up within a minute) are among the worst offenders. I recently called United Airlines in a futile attempt to spend dollars to buy their product. Mind you, this is an industry that has lost billions of dollars and much of which has sought federal bankruptcy protection. You’d think they’d be rolling out the red carpet in gratitude.

Instead, I’m greeted with that familiar, annoying voice instructing me that before I will get any help, I need to first answer “a few simple questions.” I keep repeating one word over and over: “agent.” The android says, “Sorry I couldn’t hear you, can you repeat that?” And I practically swallow the mouthpiece as I yell “AGENT,” and then the droid intones, “I think I heard you said you’d like to speak to an agent, is that right?”

Then I was transferred to what they now call the “agent queue.” Excuse me, this is the United States of America, not Russia. We don’t queue up to buy things unless it’s the new iPad or a new line of Air Jordan sneakers. In this particular venture into agent-queue purgatory I’m put on hold for 41 minutes.

This becomes an endurance test. If you rush to the bathroom, that is surely when the agent is going to come on and you’re going to have to start all over.

What’s especially maddening about this whole ritual is that the airlines got the clever idea a few months back that with hundreds of thousands of captive customers stuck in answering service purgatory, they can make money by running radio ads for Home Depot and the like while you wait. Great, the longer I’m on hold, the more money the company makes. I’d say our incentives are misaligned here.

I’ve been doing some research on this issue, and I’ve discovered that customer backlash against automated phone answering services is surging. Websites are proliferating with tips and tricks about how to navigate through these systems, head-fake the robotic gatekeepers, and minimize waiting times.

The first obvious pointer is to say “agent,” “operator,” or “complaint,” over and over, no matter what the question. Another pointer is to never be cooperative or play by their rules; they want you to be as docile as a lamb.

Some experts advise that cursing gets you through the queue faster (but cussing out a real person is rarely advisable), because some of the newer “smart” services have emotion-detection technology, which red flags the operators that there’s a ticked-off person at the other end of the line. It doesn’t hurt to make the robot think you have a rotary phone and you would gladly follow its litany of inane commands but don’t have buttons to push.

A friend of mine is a senior vice president at one of the major airlines, and I recently cross-examined him about why his company subjects its prized customers to these horrible machines. He told me, “They save us a bundle of money. Millions of dollars, actually.” The automated answering systems “don’t get paid, they don’t take sick days, they’re not unionized, and they never have bad attitudes,” he explained.

I’m not so sure these companies are right that these phone systems are truly money savers. Truly successful companies like Apple invest a lot of dollars building up their brand and amassing a loyal customer base that will buy the product again and again.

Putting people on hold for five or 10 or 30 minutes is the antithesis of the philosophy that the customer is king. It’s the height of rudeness. It is telling your customers: Our time is more valuable than yours, so we are going to make you wait and wait and converse with a computer.

And by the way, stop rubbing salt in the wounds with the intermittent “your call is important to us,” or “you’re a valued customer,” and “we apologize for the inconvenience.” All lies.

So I’m going on a one-man customer strike and I hope others join me. If I don’t get a live person within two minutes on the phone, I now hang up and take my business elsewhere. I’ll gladly pay more for real customer service.