Helen, my girlfriend, received a new endtable from overstock.com today. It turned out that the metal frame was physically warped, and she spent 15 minutes trying to track down Overstock’s phone number in order to request an RMA number without success. This whole episode reminded me of the single-most popular article I’ve ever seen on Slate, which documented one author’s Quixotic quest for Amazon’s customer service number.

As it works out, the phone number for Overstock is 1-800-The-Big-O. We had an additional complication in that our phones are too smart to print the bell telephone letter equivalents on our keypads any longer, and I had to hunt around for that information (Helen has a Blackberry, and I have a T-Mobile Dash). Fortunately, Google was on the case and this wasn’t an issue for long.

What amazes me are the lengths these companies will go to in order to purposefully obfuscate and ruin their overall user experience in order to save money on customer service calls phone calls. I understand that they operate on razor-thin margins, but I believe it ultimately does them and their customers a disservice. I appreciate being able to relate to another human being when I have a problem with a product. Sometimes it can be helpful and far more effective to speak with an operator instead of trying to pigeonhole yourself into categories 1, 2, 3, or 4.

Incidentally, Avis does a fantastic job of this. I called them up for a reservation last week. I was decidedly surprised when I got a real person on the phone after 10 seconds instead of an automated phone system. As they put it, they try harder.

Back when I was in high school, from 1998-2000, I worked for the Geek Squad in Minneapolis. The owner, Robert Stephens, had a strict no-automated phone system policy. He felt that it dehumanized the service, and kept us from interacting in a timely fashion from our customers.

How times have changed. I just called up the Geek Squad phone number, 612-343-4335 (GEEK) to find an automated phone system. It asked me whether I would like to converse with it in English or Spanish, whether I’d like to check on an existing case, or if I had a problem with a cable or UPS system purchased with the Geek Squad logo on it. How times have changed, indeed. Robert, I don’t think you read my blog, but I’m disappointed in you for letting go of your principles on this matter.

Update: I heard back from Robert. It turns out he does read my blog, and he is working towards fixing these issues.