Are phones a necessary evil?

I hate phones.

I hate answering phones. I hate making phone calls. I especially hate doing business by phone. Maybe it’s a part of my social anxiety, but I will go to great lengths to not use my phone. (The phone “app” doesn’t even live on the homescreen of my phone!)

If I ever have a question for my bank, for instance, I will get in my car and drive to the bank before I’ll pick up the phone.

Kim thinks I’m crazy. She’s just the opposite. She loves the phone and prefers it to doing business in person. Every week, I listen as she makes two or three calls and uses her charm on customer service agents. I have no charm, and I hate the phone.

Let me give you a more detailed example of why I find phones frustrating.

As a non-phone guy, it makes me sad that some of my friends are very much phone people. If I text them, they phone me back. If I send them email, they phone me back. *sigh*

Welcome to Purgatory

Last autumn, before my trip to Europe, I inadvertently signed up for the Oregon Health Plan. I had been filling out online forms to research an article, and apparently one of the forms that said it was informational only was actually a real, genuine application.

When I returned from Europe, I found that I was enrolled in my state’s low-income health plan. Oops.

“You need to call to correct this,” Kim said.

“I know,” I said, “but I hate the phone.”

“Do it anyhow,” she said. I dialed the customer service number. Then I sat on hold for 45 minutes before becoming so frustrated that I hung up and went on to other things. A week later, the same scene repeated itself. And the next week too.

After a third session of waiting on hold, I’d had enough.

“This is why I hate phones,” I said to Kim. “You wait on hold for an eternity. It’s like you’re in purgatory. When you finally get through, nobody knows the answer. I’m over this. I’m going to go find somebody who can help me.”

I drove twenty minutes to a government office, where a pleasant young woman listened to my story. “I can help,” she said. Ten minutes later, my problem was solved.

I texted Kim: “It took me less time to drive down here and get this solved than it did to wait on hold for nothing this morning.”

And I can almost guarantee you that if I had actually reached somebody on the phone, it wouldn’t have been the right person. I would have been shuffled around — and left on hold — several times before somebody would have been able to help. That’s how it always goes.

From my experience, it’s almost always more effective to speak to somebody in person than it is to handle business by phone. If I have a question for a company or government agency, I do my best to stop by an actual office to ask it. I prefer the face to face contact. It’s quicker and produces better results.

Sometimes, though, the phone is a necessary evil.

A Necessary Evil

This morning, I was doing my end-of-month finances. I noticed a charge this week from Avis Rent-a-Car. “That’s strange,” I thought. “I haven’t rented a car recently. Is this from my rental in France?”

I did a quick search of my transactions to find two recent charges from Avis:

Avis Charges

When I rented the car in France, I did so with Chase Ultimate Rewards points. No cash changed hands. When I returned the car, the man who checked me in told me everything was fine. No damage. I was under the impression that I didn’t owe anything else.

That said, it’s possible that I inadvertently broke some law or other while driving around Normandy, Brittany, and Paris. Maybe I used a toll road without knowing. Maybe I ran a red light that was photo enforced. Maybe Paris has congestion charges like London. Maybe I was speeding somewhere that I ought not have been speeding. I don’t know.

I tried to follow all of the rules. Plus, I drive like an old man. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t make a mistake.

So, maybe these charges are due to some error on my part. But it’s also possible that I’m getting screwed over by Avis. The problem is that other than these two charges to my credit card, nobody has contacted me to let me know what’s going on.

With a heavy sigh — and a complaint to Kim — I called Avis.

I’m pleased to report that I didn’t have to wait long for a customer service rep. (Maybe because it’s early on a Sunday morning?) Unfortunately, all Ed could tell me was that both of these charges are “administrative fees”.

“What are administrative fees?” I asked.

“They could be any number of things,” he said, “but they’re usually due to a government fine of some sort. Like a parking ticket. Or a speeding ticket. Stuff like that.”

“Is there any way to find out what my charges are for?” I asked.

“Well, I have a phone number here. You could call,” he said. I shook my head and grimaced. I was glad he couldn’t see my reaction. “But you can also simply wait. Generally speaking, you’ll eventually be contacted with information about what these fees are for.”

So, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to wait. Yes, it goes against my advice to always be proactive. But it also means I don’t have to use the phone.

With luck, I’ll get mail (or email) soon that lets me know how I goofed up on the roads of France. Until then, I just hope these administrative fees don’t keep accumulating at the end of every month! More than that, I hope I don’t have to make additional phone calls about them.

One of my biggest pet peeves — my biggest pet peeve? — is companies that allow you to sign up for service online but force you to phone to cancel service. When we moved into this house (two years ago today!), I subscribed to the Sunday New York Times. It sounded fun, and the online sign-up process was simple.

Turns out, we never read the paper. When it arrived, it sat on the coffee table for a week or two or three, then it got recycled. (Well, we did read the New York Times Magazine supplement, but that’s it.) So, I decided to cancel.

In a total dick move, The New York Times forces you to phone in order to cancel. You have to run the “customer retention” gauntlet to stop service. Utter bullshit. If you can sign up via the web, you should be able to cancel via the web. (And don’t give me this stupid “it’s for your protection” excuse. Who goes around canceling people’s newspaper subscriptions?)

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