Public Service?

originally published in the Hartford Advocate

Public Service?
The DMV hates your phone voice (no offense). We tried reaching them on the phone and were sent on a great Mario-Brothers-like adventure. So you’d better try to talk to them in person instead.

By Jennifer Abel

An online search for Web pages containing the phrases “Department of Motor Vehicles” and “Hell” yielded nearly 63,000 hits, though a more refined search for “Hell” and “Connecticut DMV customer-service phone tree” showed no responses at all.

This glaring omission demonstrates why you can’t rely too much on the Internet for information. Or maybe it just shows the strangeness of the thoughts you get after your seventh or eighth hour spent climbing the branches of that non-hellish (according to the Internet) phone tree at the DMV’s “Telephone Center.”

Best not to call them at all. DMV doesn’t like phone chats anyway. It all but says so on its Web site: “Branch [o]ffice telephone numbers are not listed due to the overwhelming amount of phone calls that are received daily. We feel that you would be better served in the [b]ranch [o]ffices by having line staff on the counter to expedite transactions and have phone calls referred to a centralized location.”

Some might say they’d be served better yet by not having to go to the branch office at all. These are the people likely to call the Telephone Center, because they think calling DMV on the phone must be more convenient than going there during normal business hours or on Saturday.

They’re wrong. The Telephone Center’s main purpose is to minimize if not eliminate the time agents spend talking to you over the phone; going to a branch office and immersing yourself in the full-body DMV experience is actually the lesser of two evils, annoyance-wise.

It’s not known if this is a deliberate strategy on DMV’s part; maybe the bureaucratic equivalent of “always go clubbing with friends less attractive than you?”
I’m not the first person to fail in an attempt to reach an actual human over the DMV’s phones. A few weeks ago I tried calling to get an on-the-record comment for a story. When you call the Telephone Center you’re told that dialing zero to speak to an agent won’t work unless you’re specifically invited to do so.

And I never was. No matter which numbers I picked, I kept getting kicked back into the same never-ending Mobius loop of pre-recorded choices.

“Before you are able to speak to a phone agent, you must choose the DMV issue that you are inquiring about from the menu,” explains the Web site. I did, and continued reading: “After you choose an issue you must then choose specific topic before you will be asked if you want to speak to an agent. Please be patient.”

I was. For half an hour. Then I hung up and drove to the DMV’s main office in Wethersfield, where I was eventually directed to spokesman Bill Seymour. After getting my comment for the story at hand, I asked him, “Did you know it’s impossible to reach a human being through the phone number on your Web site?”

Seymour laughed. “I hear that complaint from a lot of people.”

I’ll bet he does. So I thought: why not climb through and map out the whole phone tree? See if those dial-zero invitations actually exist, and determine where in the foliage they’re hidden.

And “hidden” is exactly the right word; the invitations are tucked behind the point where most people would hang up in frustration.

If you do want such an invitation, here’s the punch-code sequence most likely to lead to one: after dialing the main number, you press 1 to access the automated system, press 1 again “for information on vehicle registration, Internet renewal, safety inspection or emissions,” and press 1 a third time “for vehicle registration.”

Now wait. The DMV voice actress will recite eight different options ranging from registering a used vehicle to information about new registration stickers. (With a cuticle trimmer, you can accomplish valuable hangnail-maintenance tasks during this time.)

Then you’re told to press “pound” to repeat that list, “9” to return to the previous menu, or “star” to go back to the main menu. And then — finally — you’re invited to press zero to speak to an agent.

But you might be on hold for a couple of hours. You’re probably better off just going to the DMV.
By your second day perched in the phone tree you might ponder the Nintendo corporation which, being based in Japan, has no known connection with the Connecticut DMV. But the video games in the company’s popular “Mario” franchise share traits with the phone tree all the same.

Resist the temptation to make the obvious joke about how both experiences are improved by the consumption of magic mushrooms. The salient point is, Mario sometimes stumbles upon hidden “warp zones” that whisk him off to entirely different levels of the game, and there are warp zones hidden in the Telephone Center too.

Ponder this hypothetical: Say you live in New Britain or a suburb thereof, and want directions to your nearest DMV safety inspection facility. So you call the Telephone Center, and you’re given the address of the DMV Web site and advised to seek answers there.

Press 1 to access their automated system, and you’ll be given the address of their Web site, where you can find answers to many questions. Then you’re asked to choose from five different options. Choose option 1 again, “for information on vehicle registration, Internet renewal, safety inspection or emissions.”

You’ll be told the address of the DMV Web site, where you can get many questions answered. Then you’re given more options; when you press 3 for safety inspection, you’re given the address of the DMV Web site, where many common questions are answered. Now more phone options: press 2 for directions to safety inspection facilities. And did you know that many DMV-related questions are answered on the department’s Web site?

Behold the final three options: press 1 for Enfield, 2 for Hamden or 3 for Wethersfield.

“Wait a minute,” you might say at this point. “I live in New Britain or a suburb thereof, remember? None of those choices help me.”

To quote the Web site: Please be patient. Pick any of those options — it doesn’t matter which — and sit through the long list of different ways to reach a given inspection center. When that’s over, press 9 to go back to the previous menu. (If you try this while the message is still playing, it won’t work.)

Now you’re back to the previous menu, which has changed from the original: press 1 for Enfield, 2 for New Britain or 3 for Wethersfield.

That’s the New Britain safety inspection center warp zone, and once you’re in it you’ll never be invited to press 2 for Hamden again unless you hang up and start over. Doing so grants access to the Hamden warp zone, which will kick you out of the safety-inspection listings entirely, and into a list of photo-ID centers in the Derby/Milford area.

After leaving the warp zones behind, you’ll find the phone-tree sub-levels most notable for their complete lack of tact. Are you a resident non-citizen looking to schedule an appointment to get your first-ever driver’s license in Connecticut? Then press 1 to access the automated system, 2 for information on driver’s licenses, 2 again for first-time Connecticut licenses, and 1 for non-citizens.

Now you sit through a recording that’s several minutes long, and eventually you’ll be invited to press 1 to schedule an appointment over the phone. That’s when you’re told it’s not possible to schedule appointments over the phone.
I called Bill Seymour just as he was leaving for a meeting. Since he had no time to chat, I sent him an e-mail with a variety of questions ranging from “How many agents does DMV have to work the phones” to “In light of the already-long hold times to reach an agent, how much of a problem would it be if a journalist were to publish the ‘cheat codes’ telling readers exactly which sequence of buttons they must press to be invited to speak to an agent on the DMV phone tree?”

There are 22 agents working the phones, Seymour replied. In calendar year 2006, the phone center received 1,054,523 phone calls, of which 400,210 led to actual conversations and 37,979 were ”abandoned,” meaning the caller disconnected ”before going through the first menu option.”

And using cheat-code shortcuts to speak to an operator “could produce longer wait times for a live operator,” Seymour wrote. “The system was set up for achieving some forms of efficiency.”

Since this e-mail arrived mere seconds before deadline, there was no time to ask exactly which forms of efficiency the system’s set up to achieve.