'Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?'

With Bank of America, it can be difficult to know

Lily Tomlin

Readers of a certain age will recognize the headline as being the signature line of Lilly Tomlin's "Ernestine the telephone operator" on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-in, a groundbreaking sketch comedy that aired from 1968 to 1972. It came to me a few days ago after a head-on collision with Bank of America's customer service department.

I make such calls rarely and only under the pain of pending financial ruin, so it's possible that what I'm about to describe is nothing out of the ordinary. And if that's the case, all the worse.

I dial the customer service number directly off my bank statement, which for this particular account I continue to receive via snail mail for reasons that are none of any environmental nag's business.

I reach a recording, which instructs: "If you are a third party requesting a payoff, please press 1. Otherwise, please continue to hold."

Not being clear as to what the first option even means, I decide to hold, shortly after which I hear a human voice:

"Hello, this is Angela, may I have the number of the account you are calling about?"

And it was right then that Ernestine's voice piped up in the back of my brain: Had I really reached the party to whom I was speaking? In other words, was this really Bank of America? After all, neither the recorded message nor Angela had said a peep about Bank of America, so, for all I knew, I might have reached con artist Peggy from those Discover Card commercials.

I said: "I'm sorry, Angela, who have I reached here?"

"This is Angela," she replied.

"No, I mean, what company?"

"Bank of America."

Too late. At that point I'm hearing Angela but seeing Peggy. I tell Angela that I'm going to hang up and start over again because neither the recording nor she (until I asked) had bothered to assure me that I had indeed dialed the right number. (I don't recall her exact words, but Angela/Peggy reacted as though this was not the first time someone had made this point.)


Not these days.

I went back to the bank statement, found the number again, and dialed with all the care and concentration I could muster.

Got the same recording, different Angela/Peggy. While there was still no mention of Bank of America, I conducted my business, which was maddening in an altogether different manner that I won't get into here.

So why wouldn't Bank of America answer the phone by saying, oh, something like "Hello, this is Bank of America?" I'm going to guess that the call center does not belong to Bank of America but is an outside agency whose operators serve multiple clients simultaneously. Or something like that.

I honestly don't care what the reason is; it's unnerving not to be told you've reached your intended party.

I mean even cranky old Ernestine informed every caller that she was from the phone company.

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