By Ralph Nader
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column on the imbalance of communications success between callers and callees. The latter have all kinds of ways not to return calls, emails and other portals of the so-called communications technological revolution.
I noted that getting through to your callee is so difficult these days that it represents a formidable obstacle both to a functioning democratic society and a functioning consumer-driven economy.
So now I’m asking you, the readers, to suggest ways you have either tried successfully or think could be successful in getting through to people or institutions.
Here are some categories:
1. Legislators at the local, state and federal levels. In my experience, it has never been more difficult to reach your Senator, Representative or their staff, unless you’re a campaign donor, a social friend, or are requesting a flag that has flown over the U.S. Capitol. Congressional offices are barricaded by voicemail or nameless interns who take messages without having a clue as to who is calling or how serious the message may be. Emails are sent into a vortex. Serious letters are viewed as quaint relics to be dismissed without even the courtesy of an acknowledgment.
Readers – your suggestions about how to get through are welcomed.
2. Executive branch agencies at the local, state and federal level. We’ve tried, with other citizens, to get through to agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). They don’t even bother to acknowledge, much less respond to serious issues raised by citizen groups or taxpayers. I was reliably told that the bureaucratic staff of the FTC intercepts letters sent personally to FTC Commissioners and decides what, if anything, to deliver to the Commissioner addressed. No wonder FTC Chair Lina Khan doesn’t respond to my letters.
Reflecting their sense of hopelessness, people from all quarters say that they no longer even try to complain or get answers to their questions from local, state and federal agencies. I’ve seen some local post offices take their phone off the hook or make callers endlessly wait on hold. That’s why we hear some agency leaders claim they have gotten no complaints, other than from the rare caller who reaches them with a complaint.
Readers – your suggestions! Please don’t say write to your member of Congress. Unless you have a very personal, easy-to-remedy problem, like not getting a government check, it really doesn’t work.
3. Getting through to corporations who have the nerve to name their outreach office – “customer service” – is a drain on the most deeply patient, determined consumer. I’ve found it difficult to even get through by telephone to my telephone company, and when I did, I was inundated with gobs of gobbledygook.
You’ve had similar experiences, to be sure, with your banks, insurance companies, hospitals, clinics, and electric, gas and water utilities. They don’t like to use the telephone anymore. Even if you can leave a message, many just don’t return calls or respond to repeated telephone inquiries. “Email,” they say on their voicemail, good luck. One sometimes reaches a person at a call center in some foreign land. Unfortunately, call center operators rarely have the ability to resolve a caller’s problem. (Note most companies refuse to put their response to you in writing.)
I’ve found modest success in asking for the local bank branch’s direct telephone number to get around the tiers of “press one, press two, press three.” Also, small local businesses are usually more responsive.
Readers – here is where your varied experiences and frustrations may produce suggestions to get through the force fields and at least getting to the “no people” – which is another barrier beyond the scope of this column. “No people” in companies are trained to deny, thwart, confuse and wear you down, especially when you’re asking about inscrutable overbilling or overdue repairs.
There are still other categories. Many people can’t even get through on the telephone to their own neighbors because the latter no longer answer the phone due to the robocalls they receive. Imagine an emergency. Decades ago, telephone calls got through, but that was before all these sophisticated techniques, which interfere between caller and callee. When one tries to email, they find more and more people aren’t keeping up with their overloaded email inboxes. And so, it goes.
Well, sagacious readers, give us your best practices and ideas about getting through. None of us is smarter than all of us. And as Norman Cousins once wrote: “No one really knows enough to be a pessimist.”