Who you gonna call?

January 30, 2011|Stuart Samuels
  • Samuels

If you are calling me about a bill, press 1. If you are calling about the bill being unpaid, press 2. If you are calling about why the bill has been unpaid, press 3.

If you would like to hear the bill payer's opinion on automated phone service, choose from the following menu:

Press 4 if you wish to hear cursing with colorful, rarely heard language, including some newly invented words.

Press 5 if you wish to be treated as a number instead of a human being.

Press 6 if you wish to have my friend Bruno visit you.

So whatever happened to speaking to a human being on the phone, to pay bills, to ask questions about your phone or cable TV service, to find out when your power might be coming back on?

Alas, technology has allowed many businesses to save millions of dollars and supposedly enhance efficiency by reducing the number of human beings answering their phones. If you have the patience to sit through the litany of options, more often than not, you'll get the right person to talk to — eventually.

(Secret No. 1: If you keep saying "customer representative" over and over like a zombie as the automated operator goes through your options for the 10th time, it often works. You can actually get a human being right then and there, rather than e-mailing and asking for an appointment to talk to a human being or leaving a message for a machine to call you back to offer more options.)

Some businesses, however, still strive for the human touch. For example, the life's blood of newspapers like The Herald-Mail is readers and advertisers. No one wants to put them on hold, or have a machine get in the way of hearing about a story or selling an ad. You guys pay the freight.

In The Herald-Mail newsroom, for example, reporters and editors are expected to answer every phone call — even if it is not theirs — after three rings, at least during working hours, from 8 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday, and on Saturday and Sunday evenings.

Granted, we miss some calls, and you likely will get voicemail if you call during off hours or if you call the direct line for someone who is out of the office. But we strive to make sure that anyone who calls our general number can speak to an actual representative of The Herald-Mail. (For the record, that number is 301-733-5131.)

But it seems the greater problem with newspapers, as is the case with many businesses, is not getting someone on the phone, but getting the right someone to help you with your particular question.

We don't expect you to know our internal bureaucracy, what the difference is, for example, between who handles news, who handles features or who handles editorials. But we hope you can be assured that whoever you do get on the phone will try his or her utmost to figure out to whom who you should be talking.

To help, on page A2 of the newspaper every day is a long list of phone numbers under "Contact us," telling readers how to get to the right person, including reporters and editors, how to share a news tip and how to report an error.  

For those who have access to a computer, look under "Contact us" at the bottom of, where you'll find an even more detailed guide to reaching the right person to place a classified ad, to speak to an advertising representative (notice the word "speak") or manage your subscription online - assuming you don't want to talk to a human being.

The Herald-Mail strives to have a daily conversation with the community it covers. So, while you might get exasperated at times trying to reach that right person, we — not a machine — always want to hear from you. Besides, we don't want Bruno to visit us.

Stuart Samuels is night city editor for The Herald-Mail Co. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2336, or via e-mail at

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