The voice on the phone sounded ominous, in a friendly sort of way.

"Your wait will be more than 15 minutes," it said, and my heart sank a little. I wasn't sure I wanted to stay on hold that long, particularly since I'd be tying up the only phone line at my office desk.

But I had a question I needed answered. And besides, this wasn't some rinky-dink operation I was calling. This was Amazon.com, one of the Web's most popular sites. Surely, I thought, they'd get to me before too long.

Whether or not that happened depends, I suppose, on your definition of "too long."

Three hours later, I was still on hold. I never did get my question answered. In the process, I learned a lesson all e-businesses should know by heart: In a store with no clerks, salesmen or any other real people, customer service is more important than ever.

I was calling because I'd received an e-mail message from Amazon.com, confirming my purchase of a book I never bought. Since I leave my credit card number stored on Amazon's servers, I immediately assumed someone had cracked my account.

I searched through Amazon for a customer service number, which was buried beneath several pages that urged me to seek help online before calling. If you hadn't noticed, most e-businesses make no bones about their desire to have you stay online and leave them alone.

Alas, I couldn't find a canned answer to the question "Has someone stolen Joe Salkowski's credit card?" So I called Amazon's 800 number and fought my way through the voicemail system before eventually securing a recorded promise that I'd be transferred to an actual human after the aforementioned 15 minutes.

'Please continue to hold'

That 15 minutes passed, followed by a half hour and 40 minutes. By this time, I'd stopped worrying about my credit card and started wondering whether anyone was ever going to answer. Most people probably would have hung up in frustration by this point. But then, most people don't have a phone number for Amazon.com's press relations department handy.

After more than an hour on hold, I borrowed my editor's cell phone, put it to my other ear and called a company spokeswoman. "How long do people usually wait on hold at Amazon.com?" I asked. "Oh, we don't give out that information," she said. "The reason I'm asking," I responded, "is that I've been on hold on your customer service line for about 70 minutes now. Is that about normal?"

She was silent for a moment, then said she'd check with someone and get right back to me. "It'll be quicker than 70 minutes," she quipped. Ha, ha, ha.

Meanwhile, the same repeating clip of hold music kept playing in my ear. Every minute or so, a voice cut in, making it sound like I'd finally reached a real person. Instead, it was the canned guy, telling me to "please continue to hold."

By this time, I pretty much hated him. I dreamed of tracking him down and wringing his neck. I imagined what that might sound like: "Please continue to ACKK!"

At the 85-minute mark, the spokeswoman called back and assured me my wait was "atypical." In fact, she said she'd just visited customer service and saw that their computer didn't show anyone on hold for longer than 10 minutes. She offered to answer my question herself, but I wasn't going to let her off that easy. I pressed for an explanation; she said she'd call me back.

By the two-hour mark, I was sure I'd had enough and almost hung up. But I held on out of sheer curiosity how long would they let me hang there? Another 15 minutes? A half hour?

Lacking significance

Try forever. I finally hung up at 5 p.m. after spending more than three hours on hold. As I was heading out the door to drive home, Amazon's spokeswoman called on the cell phone. She explained that I'd been victimized by a bug in their voicemail software that they were now most assuredly going to fix.

"It affected a very, very insignificant number of people," she told me. Apparently, I was one of those insignificant people. Maybe you were, too. I suppose it's easy to think people are insignificant when all you see is their credit card numbers.

A computerized voicemail system probably sounds like a good idea to e-commerce shops looking to save a few bucks on personnel. But I think most online shoppers would be more loyal to sites that have real human beings standing close by if something goes wrong.

As for my question: It turned out that my wife used my account at Amazon.com to buy me a present. She didn't realize the site would send me a confirmation message that spoiled her surprise.

To that, all I can say is thanks, honey it was quite a present.

To contact Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at

joes@azstarnet.com

or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill., 60611.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.