Have you ever called your bank, phone company, or some other vendor and become trapped by their automated customer relationship management (CRM) system? You know the drill: a female voice answers and offers you a series of menu choices that rarely takes you to a live person. Instead you either wind up with a pre-recorded message that doesn’t really answer your question, or you’re asked to leave a message and someone will get back to you.

Or you’re told that you’re the 29th person on hold and it’s a 15 minute wait. “Stay on the line,” the female voice will say, “and we’ll be right with you. Your business is important to us.”

R-i-g-h-t.

My other peeve is when you have to provide all sorts of information to an automated CRM system — like your acccount number, Social Security number, phone number, number after number — then someone live DOES pick up the phone and asks you all the same questions AGAIN!

What a waste of time. It makes me feel like my business ISN’T all that important. And I wonder whether my money could be better spent elsewhere. How’s that for relationship building?

What ever happened to old-fashioned customer service when someone answered the phone and said, “Can I help you?” Automation is great for streamlining the business. I’m a big supporter of finding better, more cost-effective ways to run a company. But it goes too far when automation depersonalizes your company.

An interesting fact: CRM was developed in the late-1990s by a company called the META Group (acquired by Gartner in April 2005). It required the implementation of some serious software, and often called for a robust information technologies team to make it work. It was very expensive, but was seen as the next stage in the information evolution.

What it did was create a kind of firewall to hold customers at bay. It’s a traffic cop and it’s not friendly. Not at all.

I’m not unique in how I feel about it because I’ve read reports, some from the Gartner Group itself, that talk about the general perception that “CRM is dead – or at least on life support.”

But those same reports cite a resurgence in interest in CRM. In fact, as far as I can tell, this resurgence began last August and continues today.

And guess what? The marketing focus is no longer on streamlining. No, the CRM industry has discovered something new and very, very exciting. They are calling it “The Customer.”

In fact, during the CRM Association’s inaugural regional conference, held recently in Atlanta, the focus was on “the power and the voice of the customer.” On their website (www.crmassociation.org) they say that during this conference, there was little talk about technology “which is a key component of CRM, but ineffective when the focus is solely centered on it and the people and process angle is ignored.”

This could be great news. The CRM industry is putting the ‘C’ back into CRM.

But someone should tell the folks who manage service at the phone company, the bank, the utility, and many of the other places that do business with people known as customers. They apparently haven’t gotten the word yet.

So here’s the question: How do you answer the phone? Does a computer do it or — gasp — do you have a live person say something like, “It’s a great day here at XYZ Mechanical Systems. How can I help you?”