Dateline: Pittsburgh, Pa. Sunday, June 26, 2005
Technology has its own hangups for users. For better or worse, techn-
ology that allows us to screen callers can throw a wrench into timely
We want answers, and we want them fast.
And when the speed with which these answers arrive isn't up to our
expectations, we look for someone -- or something -- to blame.
Technology, it seems, is an easy target.
In a recent survey, 67 percent of the 1,750 people interviewed by
Siemens Communications Inc. took target practice at telephone and
online communications, saying they spend too much time leaving voice
mails and sending e-mails when quick answers are what they need. And
when answers finally do arrive, these same people reported the calls
often came back too late.
Society is plugged in as never before -- with PDAs, cell phones,
e-mail, faxes, caller ID and voice mail -- and experts offer varying
opinions about the cause and effect. Some say Americans are feeling
increasingly unplugged, disconnected and out of control, trapped in a
never-ending game of phone tag. Others say that the ability to screen
phone calls through caller ID, sift through e-mail and, particularly
for businesses, handle customer calls through automated voice systems
is worth any inconvenience and potential waiting game.
"Isn't it interesting that we blame the technology?" said Richard
Thompson, a professor and director of the graduate program in
telecommunications at the University of Pittsburgh. Thompson worked
for 20 years at AT&T Bell Labs before coming to Pitt in 1989.
"Isn't this like being annoyed about traffic congestion, so we blame
the inventors of the automobile? It sounds to me like when people need
information from someone else, that 67 percent of them put off getting
it until the last possible minute.
"I think this complaint says a lot about how busy we are and how
hectic our jobs are, on both sides of the phone call or e-mail, but
especially on the calling party's side."
Barry Lawrence of Siemens, the survey folks, says productivity is
declining because it's so hard to reach people. And our personal lives
have grown more frustrating because it's hard to reach a live person
at your health club or day-care center. The communications technology
designed to make our lives easier is affecting our work, lifestyles
and mental health, Lawrence said.
Playing phone tag also is making our skins thinner, said Wu Zhou, a
senior analyst for Boston-based IDC, a top telecommunications research
firm, because we never know when or if the person we're trying to
reach listens to voice mail or reads e-mails.
But technology doesn't give people a license to be rude, said Martin
Weiss, associate professor of telecommunications at Pitt. "It's like
the argument about guns," he said -- do you blame the people who use
the technology for not returning calls or e-mails, or the technology
that allows them to screen your communication? And is caller ID
something the complainer covets himself because he can screen, say,
"You can't have it both ways," Weiss said.
Zhou argued that those who do listen to voice mails and read e-mails
could be using that time more productively.
It's a balancing act, these questions of civility versus service,
efficiency versus delay, and which side you fall on depends mostly on
which side of the phone line you happen to be on.
Out of reach
"We are so bombarded by information that we are defending ourselves
with tools such as caller ID," said Pier Forni, an expert on manners
at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and author of "Choosing
Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct."
"If a talkative friend is calling and you are busy, you have the good,
traditional option of answering. Just state that you are busy, and
that you will call back later."
But not responding to voice or e-mails "is a form of
non-acknowledgement; hence it's rude," Forni said.
Once again, Pitt's Thompson advised not to blame the messenger.
In an e-mail -- a prompt answer to a query about this article -- he
set up a premise, explaining that he is "usually someone from whom
people want information, instead of the one seeking the
information. People have a question about my master's program, so they
call me or send an e-mail."
He notes that most questions could be answered by viewing the
University's Web site, "but they're too lazy or too busy to work
independently." So a percentage of that group might call him and wind
up leaving voice mail, setting up a potential phone-tag situation.
"If they had sent me an e-mail, with the question in the e-mail, I
could respond directly, at least by the next day," Thompson said.
"I think many of us haven't learned how to use the appropriate
technology for the given task."
Any human will do ...
The one universal villain in advanced telecommunications seems to be
automated voice mail. All telephone users have visited that special
ring of Hades where automated menus reside.
Last week, Gene Dwyer of Crafton called the Pennsylvania American
Water Co. to report a problem with muddy, rusty water.
"I went through three or four button pushes until a lady came on
wanting my account number, my Social Security number and telephone
number, and then they were willing to listen to my story," says Dwyer.
The woman told him they hadn't received any other complaints but that
one of their water experts would look into it.
Dwyer also called KQV radio, reporting the muddy water as a news tip.
They, too, said they'd look into it.
"You go through a long series of automated phone menus, then you pick
the number closest to your topic," Dwyer says. "Go through four menus,
then in the fourth menu, you go through two additional sub menus."
When Dwyer has called Duquesne Light during a power outage, he has
been given another number to call.
"You have to get a flashlight to make the call," he says.
"I won't even get into trying to contact a doctor, credit-card
company, Blue Cross, airlines, banks, etc.," says writer Patricia
Orendorff Smith, 62, of Indiana, Indiana County. "I am put on hold
after punching number after number only to hear a computerized
voice. It drives me nuts. I want to talk to a real live person, one in
Joanna L. Krotz, in a report titled "'Voice-mail jail' and other
blunders of automation" for www.microsoft.com, acknowledged that
"increasingly, customer care is being managed and massaged by
automation." She added that more than 70 percent of midmarket
companies say they plan to invest in contact center or e-mail
management systems within the next two years, according to a survey
from AMR Research, a Boston-based market analyst.
Although automated systems may come at a cost to customers' time and
nerves, they also save the company money, a savings that should filter
back to clients.
"There's no question that computerized services offer dramatic
savings," Krotz wrote. "Typically, it costs an exorbitant $50 or more
for a human agent to field a customer's call. By contrast,
self-service interactions on the Web run mere pennies. In between,
combinations of human agents and technologies ... cost a few bucks per
Weiss admitted that automated voice mail isn't winning any fans.
"I hate them, everybody hates them. But does it mean that, let's say,
the bank having them can offer me cheaper services? If it does, then
it's a trade-off. Life is full of trade-offs. This is just one of
Interpreting the survey
We began with a poll that says a majority of us are ticked off about
the time ticking away as we wait for an answer.
The follow-up question we asked experts is: Are the trade-offs -- such
as caller ID and cheaper services -- worth the waiting game?
"I think the technology has raised our expectation that we can get the
information we need easier and sooner," Thompson said. "Like the
automobile has raised our expectation that we can commute from Harmar
Township to Smithfield Street in 25 minutes. Since we can't do it,
because we spend 20 minutes trying to get through the traffic light at
Route 28 and the 31st Street Bridge, we vent our frustration on the
technology in some survey."
If the survey implies that things are worse than they used to be, then
it's giving a false impression, Thompson said.
"I don't want to appear defensive about telecom technology, but what
did we do before we had voice mail and e-mail? That was a different
time, when we all weren't so frantic, so it's hard to make an A-B
The survey reminded Pitt's Weiss of a time when caller ID was a case
for the Federal Communications Commissions and the courts.
"Back around the late '80s, early '90s, one of the big debates was
whether caller ID should be allowed at all because of privacy issues,"
"Some 15 years later, it's become ubiquitous," he said. "And where
before we were complaining about privacy invasion ... now we have it
and people are taking advantage of it. You can't have it both ways."
Liz Raphael Helegesen, 41, who records messages for corporate
America's voice mail systems, screens calls with caller ID and says
she returns all voice mails.
"When I'm on the other line, in a conference, in a recording session,
parenting or eating a meal, it would be inappropriate to interrupt an
existing conversation, meeting or family time to take a phone call,"
To Helegesen, caller ID is an important tool.
"People rely on caller ID because they don't want to talk to you,"
said Jeff Kagan, a national telecommunications analyst in
Atlanta. Added management consultant April Callis of Lansing, Mich.:
People use voice mail "to collect calls they don't want to deal with
and don't plan on returning."
Weiss quotes an article that he thinks sums it up when he said caller
ID and other telecom tools are "a way of defending ourselves from the
information onslaught, and I think that's true."
The future, he adds, is bound to include more intelligent screening
devices as the onslaught of information continues unabated.
"I think we'll see a lot of different techniques for helping us cope,"
But that doesn't mean we'll see an end to complaints.
(Bill Hendrick of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Post-Gazette
staff writer L.A. Johnson contributed to this story.)
Copyright 1997-2005 PG Publishing Co., Inc.
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