By my calculations, I spend a third of my time sleeping, a third enjoying retirement, and most of the rest on hold waiting for the next available agent. I don’t think anyone would argue that automated phone systems are the Techno-Ebola of our time. But I wouldn’t even mind that much if at the end of it was a Knowledgeable Human Being.
I don’t know where The People Who Actually Know The Answer are but one place they certainly aren’t is at the end of any customer service line. I try going for the best of three to see if I can get at least two people to give me the same answer, but oftentimes, I have to go for best of seven. If it’s the visa section of any foreign consulate, the mortgage division of a bank, Medicare, Social Security, or almost anything related to the State of California, you’re pretty much looking at the best of infinity.Here’s what I consider the fundamental mystery of our times: Why is it that no matter how many calls you make in advance, you can only get the right answer to your question after you’ve done it wrong? That’s when the Actual Knowledgeable Human crawls out of the wood work to inform you, as these recent examples from friends illustrate, that (a) the college credits you were assured would transfer from your former institution to your new one will not (b) the medical procedure the customer service agent confirmed was covered is actually Out of Network, and (c) the address that they gave you to send your first re-fi mortgage payment is actually the old one, incurring $300 in non-negotiable penalties (and a black mark on your credit).
Not, of course, that the institutions involved will take responsibility for the misinformation of their own employees, even if you have documented exactly whom you spoke with and when, or even recorded the call. Their mistake? Your bad.
A corollary to the Mystery of Only Getting the Right Answer After You’ve Done It Wrong is a phenomenon I call Asking the Unanswerable. Business journalist Frank Lalli did a brilliant illustration of this in the December 1 New York Times describing his efforts to find out what his blood cancer drug would cost under either a new insurer or Medicare which he was required to transition to come January. He documented 70 calls to 16 organizations and got estimates from $20 a month to a whopping $17,000 per year. The most accurate information, he lamented, was that he wouldn’t actually know the cost until he filed his first claim in January after irrevocably committing to a new plan.
A South African friend who works here and visits her son and grandchildren living in Europe regularly encounters a second corollary to this phenomenon: Asking the Unanswerable of Ogres. I’d use a different word but my paper won’t let me. My friend notes that there are not only serious idiots working customer service desks, but some appear to be Satan’s second cousins. She swears the people at this particular European consulate lie awake nights thinking of diabolical ways to thwart the would-be traveler, for example, invalidating her visa request on the basis that the letter of invitation from her son had to be faxed rather than mailed to the consulate (a requirement never mentioned by the evil customer service troll she’d spoken with at length.) Only after the letter came in the mail instead of fax did The Crone Who Actually Knows make her malevolent appearance.So where exactly ARE The People Who Know? Certainly, as we’ve determined, not interfacing with the general public by any known method of first-line communication. Where do they live? And why can’t we get to them the first – or even 15th – time around?
Here’s my theory: The entities who Actually Know are tiny mutant life forms who live in a secret bunker at an Undisclosed Location. They have been programmed to hide there until such time as a hapless human has made some irrevocable commitment to a well-researched course of action then beam themselves to earth in humanoid form cackling maniacally to reveal The Real Answer. (But too late for you, Bucko!) I guess we earthlings must simply accept that certain things fall under the category of Unknowable: Shakespeare’s precise birthday, certain properties of subatomic particles, the real recipe for Mrs. Field’s cookies. And above all, the advance knowledge of accurate information.