GELFAND'S WORLD-I called CVS. I wanted to complain about how frustrating it is to contact the CVS pharmacy, but when I asked for the telephone number of the corporate headquarters, I was given the number "One eight hundred shop CVS." My experience in calling that number inspires these comments. 

I might start with a conclusion: Corporate America has adopted an inadequate new technology to save itself from paying salaries, but at the cost of the customer's time and frustration. 

The story goes further. Corporate America is also using the system to insulate itself from customer feedback such as I was hoping to provide. 

You've been there -- here is just one example of the telephone torture: 

(Note: I've put a few lines in red to indicate particular irritability levels) 

(Calling 1-800-Shop-CVS):

Voice:   "Thank you for calling CVS."

Voice:   "If this is a medical emergency, hang up and call 911."

Voice:    . . . something about if you want information on Covid vaccinations, push 1

Voice:    . . . something about all others push 2

Voice:    . . . options on languages

Voice:   "We are experiencing significant increases in calls . . . and apologize for . . .

Voice:   "In a few words" . . . invites me to state my need 

     (I respond) 

Voice:   "alright, an agent"

Voice:    . . . offers options, none of which is appropriate to my wants and needs, although "pharmacy experience" might come closest

Voice:    the wait time is estimated at 6 to 9 minutes

Voice:    . . . (something about flu shots I think)

Horrible music, screechy and thumping, but badly distorted 

And then we wait and wait, with another voice cutting in every now and then to say something about the next available agent. 

Let's think about that line, "If this is a medical emergency, hang up and call 911." There is something profoundly irritating about hearing this message every time I call the drugstore or a doctor's office. Think of the millions and millions of people (yourselves included) who would simply like to ask whether the prescription is ready or would like to make an appointment but have to wait through that message. Suppose, just for instance, that I had a "medical emergency" and was calling the doctor's office. For the very few medical emergencies where somebody calls the druggist or the doctor, is it worth it to tell 250 million other Americans to consider that they are fools who can't figure out that they have a medical emergency? Considering how many news stories inform us about the use of 911, you would think that we would have gotten the message by now. 

Get rid of that stupid message about calling 911 from all those robotic answering systems. 

My next rant is about the list of options. You are supposed to choose between the options that the company would like to deal with. Notice that these lists never include one that goes, "If you would like to complain about this robotic telephone answering system, push 9." 

Interestingly enough, when I have had the chance to talk to CVS pharmacy staff about the phone system, they generally just shake their heads and agree about how bad it is. I wonder whether the corporate higher-ups are aware of this. 

Put it this way -- people generally call the pharmacy to posit a direct question to a live human. "Is my insulin ready?" The system makes it as hard as possible for you to do so. 

One colleague made a point -- that, considered carefully -- seems obvious. They really don't want to talk to you or to hear from you. More than that, they don't want their executives to waste time (that's how they think of it) in getting close to their customers. They've got MBAs and accountants and strategic planners working on increasing the corporate profits so why listen to the gadflies and grumpy customers? So they create an automated phone system to deal with all of us cranks. 

One colleague even suggested that this is their way of getting you to stop calling and use their online website instead. Could be. 

And once you realize that you understand what is going on with that endless parody of elevator music and repeated announcements about how you will be heard when an agent is available. They really are trying to make your telephone experience frustrating and unpleasant, so you won't bother them so often. They figure that you are stuck with them, so they might as well make the best of having a complainer like you as their customer. Of course, this doesn't answer your immediate question -- "Is my prescription ready? -- but it fits in the model of corporate strategic planning. 

One other observation. Why does the answering system have to assault my ears with badly reproduced, thumping "music?" With all the modern technology, you'd think they could figure out how to pass the time with something soothing. I understand that the soundtrack is there to let you know that you didn't lose the connection, but here was a company that sells prescriptions to sick people playing, "Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone." Really, they actually played that song. 

The modern world has turned us all into clerks and secretaries. People of a certain age may remember when the phone company had operators and you could get to one by dialing zero. But as one radio program mentioned the other night, a new generation doesn't even know what we mean when we talk about "dialing" a phone. (There was this rotating thing that you moved with your finger. It was round like a watch dial so we called it the dial . . . but I digress.) You could also ask for a phone number by dialing for "information" which eventually morphed into dialing 411. 

No more. 

The problem for the phone company was that it had to pay people to be operators and information responders. In the old days, there were tens of thousands of them, and the company had to pay them salaries. When it became possible to automate such activities, the company was on it like a shot. 

For the most part, this has worked out pretty well for the phone company but that's because there are only a few questions that people generally ask, and online directories usually work OK for those. 

But the rest of the corporate world has carried things too far. For the company, creating an automated phone answering system has two advantages. It saves them some money by serving that fraction of the customers who merely want to know the address of the store or its hours of operation. The second thing it has done is more pernicious -- companies have discovered that they can pretend to be available to the public for inquiries and complaints, but in reality, stay safely behind an impenetrable barrier. Want to complain about something? Tell it to the machine. Leave your name and number, and maybe one of our paid flaks will eventually call you back. Or not. 

I used to use a different pharmacy but the insurance likes CVS better. Previously, I would call Vons and hear a bare minimum of options. On that system, you could just push 4 and get connected to a human. And the response was to the point and generally pretty efficient. That's because the human brain can switch instantly between somebody asking about the prescription order and somebody else asking how late they will be open, or whether there are side effects to this stomach medication. 

The problem is that machines don't have this level of understanding. They aren't quite at the level where they can take random inquiries and figure out where to send them. There are some rudimentary starts at this sort of thing -- a credit card company suggests that you can make a comment like "pay my bill" and it will respond appropriately, but those of you who have used them know how limited the systems actually are. 

The science of voice recognition software is actually surprisingly good considering the complexities of human speech, but what computers can do vs. what the customer actually needs are two different things. 

One last thought. Corporations get all sorts of advice and statistics. They do marketing studies. And yet some of the biggest, most successful corporations are no more, or suffering badly. Anybody remember Sears? I used to buy tires and batteries there. Anybody remember JC Penney? How many stores do they have left? 

A few decades ago, I read one of those pop-management books back when they were popular. This particular management guru claimed that the successful companies were the ones that stayed close to their customers. Maybe this is actually true. If that is the case, there are a lot of American companies that have forgotten that lessen. How many of them will be following Sears down the drain? 

By the way, when I finally got connected to an agent in my endless phone call, I asked for the telephone number for the press relations office. I was informed by the agent that she did not have any such number. I would have liked to be able to talk to the CVS press relations office for this column, but they make it as hard as they can to find it. Does it exist? Who would know?


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])