IVR hell: 'Oh, great, now you tell me'

So I'm on the phone to my health insurance provider, Cigna HealthCare, and I'm dealing with one of those fancy-pants IVR systems that utilize voice-recognition technology so that you don't have to keep punching buttons.

So I'm on the phone to my health insurance provider, Cigna HealthCare, and I'm dealing with one of those fancy-pants IVR systems that use voice-recognition technology so that you don't have to keep punching buttons.

When these things work well, they're a modern-day marvel, even though the voices are always a little bit creepy. That morning? . . . Not so marvelous.

The reason for my call was that the insurance provider had recently issued my family new cards but neglected to send one for our son Max. This is a fairly common occurrence in our household because databases seem to have trouble accepting that three children in one family can have the exact same birth date, thus one of our 5-year-old triplets will often be treated as a data-input error instead of an actual human being in need of a health insurance card.

No big deal, we've learned to just make the phone call and move on.

"Thank you for calling," the voice says.

Question 1: Do you have Cigna insurance?

Me: Yes.

Question 2: Is this about a bill or a statement?

Me: No.

Question 3: Is this about eligibility or when coverage begins?

Me: No.

Question 4: None of these?

Me: Correct (I'm thinking two things here: that "yes" or "no" could be misinterpreted there by a human being, never mind a machine; and, what, do I stutter?).

Question 5: Does your membership number begin with a letter?

Me: Yes.

Question 6: Tell me that membership number.

Me: I comply while trying to imagine the purpose of Question No. 5 if they could get the answer from Question No. 6 a few seconds later.

Question 7: (The number is read back to me.) Is that correct?

Me: Yes (sigh).

Question 8: What's the date of birth of the person you're calling about?

Me: I comply, smugly, because having three children with the same birthday makes remembering it such a snap.

The voice assures me that I'm getting close to being able to speak with a human being, but first I'll need to answer one more question:

Question 9: What type of coverage are you calling about, medical or dental?

Me: Medical.

A woman - an actual human being - says hello, then: "I'm sorry, but we're experiencing a system failure, could you call back later?"

"Uh, sure," I mutter while asking myself why the creepy mechanical voice couldn't have told me that nine questions earlier.

A half-hour later I call back. Same nine questions; same nine replies - Questions 10 through 18, if you're keeping score at home. This time I get a different human being.

Question 19: "Are you calling about your son today?"

Me: "Yes, one of them," I say, while wondering how she knew that, because we have two boys and a girl, but most of all welcoming the relief that comes with the knowledge that you've finally found the person who's going to help you with your problem.

Question 20: "For security's sake, what is your date of birth?"

Me: (Thinking but not saying, geesh) I comply.

Question 21: "What can I help you with?"

Me: "One of my sons didn't get . . ."

Questions 22: "Could you call back later? I'm sorry, but our system is down."

I decided that maybe I'd call back another day.

Learn more about this topic

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