Call centers have become the way an increasing number, if not the majority, of large businesses choose to do business, if two incidents in our household are any indication.

Perhaps it helps trim costs and hold prices down, but what is most unnerving to me is the computerized voice that is so sophisticated, it can understand the answers to your questions — sort of — and create the perception of communication.

We came home earlier this week to discover no telephone calls on the caller ID, and no messages on voice mail. Something must be wrong, we reasoned, because telemarketers are usually good for 12 to 15 calls on any given afternoon. A few of them even leave messages — in a computerized voice, no less — expressing incredible excitement over my opportunity to acquire a timeshare in Arkansas or to consolidate college loans. But on this particular afternoon, there was nothing.

A check of the kitchen phone discovered that the line was dead — no dial tone.

Thirty years ago, this would be a real dilemma. One of us would have to go next door and ask a neighbor if we could borrow their phone to call in a repair request. Then one of us would have to get off work to meet a uniformed company technician who would arrive in his truck to correct the situation. But this is the 21st century. We don’t need any neighbors or company trucks with men in uniforms. We’ve got multiple lines, we carry cell phones and we have instant access to the World Wide Web and global positioning. Most important to this discussion, though, is the fact that we’ve got a computerized voice on the other end of the line to lead us through the process of self-diagnosis.

If you’ve not had the pleasure of speaking with — or to — one of these voice-recognition problem-solvers, you’re in for a real treat. But a few ground rules need to be reviewed. You must stay calm. You must speak clearly. And if you’ve got an accent, you may be out of luck.

But if you can muster some patience, the process might provide a few moments of entertainment. The best one, according to my wife who volunteered to handle this particular situation, was when the computer voice asked her, “This question may sound foolish, but are you calling on the line that doesn’t work?”… or something to that effect.

We concluded that this question had been programmed in there for a good reason.

We decided we really didn’t care to go out to the connection box on the side of the house and perform the trouble-shooting procedure the computerized voice was prepared to talk us through. This situation has happened before, and that wasn’t the solution. We really did want a technician to drive out in his truck and uniform and do something that’s a bit more complicated than that. So we got an appointment for the next day, and we were left to wonder what urgent calls from family and friends we would miss that night, not to mention the usual assortment of credit card and insurance offers.

“You know,” my wife said, “it just dawned on me I had a complete conversation with a computer.”

I went to the back room to look through the mail, and noticed something was missing from the table. Apparently, the cats had had a fit and knocked the phone on the floor. There it lay, the source of our entire problem.

So back to the computerized voice we went, to apologetically ask the phone company to cancel our repair order. For once, it was nice not to have to talk to a human being.

All this happened later in the same day we had discovered we were locked out of our e-mail at the house, which presented another opportunity to chat with a computer. This call got very complicated, primarily because we’ve had our e-mail address for almost 10 years and we couldn’t remember which of our multiple pets’ names we had used as a password. Mr. Computer Voice said that was OK, instead just clearly speak the last four digits of the credit card we use to pay for the account. That didn’t match either, because the credit card company changes the number every two years but apparently automatically moves automatic charges to the new number. I could update that, but it probably involves talking to another computer.

“Do you want to talk to a person?” the computer voice asked.

“You bet your life,” I replied.

“I don’t understand.”


Seconds later, a genuine human voice was on the line, and he identified himself as Eric. “It is my understanding that the connection to your PC fails to function,” he said. “How much is the problem for which it will not perform?”


I suspect his real name is not Eric, and that he doesn’t live in, let’s say, Kansas. Maybe he could put Mr. Computer Voice back on the line. But “Eric” was quickly able to discern that our account had sent out multiple e-mails in violation of its use policy, and had been shut down. “Eric” restored our service and e-mailed information on how to download a free virus scan.

And so my wife and I lived happily ever after in the 21st century, and never once did we have to speak to a neighbor, or get off work to meet a technician with his truck and uniform.

Isn’t technology grand? Answer yes or no.

Gene Deason is managing editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at