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Where’s the service?

Essay by Ellen Miller

Growth – April 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Another symptom of Colorado’s growth is upon us. There’s a new area code going in for the Western Slope and northern Colorado. It will be 970. The southern part of the state got its new code 719, several years ago. Now U.S. West, with its headquarters in Denver and its so-called service operations pulling back to the metrocentric area even more, has decided to leave only the metro zone in the 303 code.

It will cause some minor inconvenience until people get used to the new code. And for those living in the new 970 area, it will cost money. The bright side is the mini-rush of business it will bring to the printing and office supply stores which will be redoing business cards and stationery and address labels. Most people get the downside of having to get things reprinted.

But that’s temporary and a one-time shot. What’s pause for thought is why the Denver area, rather than the boondocks, couldn’t have been picked for the new code. The answer is the usual simple one, of course: the executives who made the decision live in Denver and they see no reason why they should be inconvenienced.

It’s the same reason the public utility companies are pulling more and more of their operations back to Denver, all in the name of economy and efficiency. U.S. West is doing it, Public Service Co. of Colorado is doing it, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Co., which serves most of the REA co-ops in the region, is also centralizing in the city.

The result gives us residents of the boondocks the voice mail systems from hell. Ordering a new phone line or getting answers to questions about a utility bill is getting to be a real adventure. In some towns the companies have left open an alleged “service center” which consists of several telephones sitting on a counter so a customer can call for service — to Denver.

It is a WATS line — you have to give them that — but the wait can be long. A caller gets various menu choices and eventually, with enough patience, might get a customer service agent, live and in person. The question gets asked or the order gets put in and that’s the last anybody hears of it for quite a while. Calls for follow-up go through the same maze and never to the same agent, so a customer is starting over every time. This is becoming known as the service-based economy.

It’s just as bad if you want to call a state agency. Try the department of health or revenue, or the secretary of state. Just hanging on long enough to get a real person on the phone is a victory, in itself. And the feds, as usual, are in a world all to themselves. For example, there’s an IRS field office in Grand Junction. But its local phone numbers are unlisted so taxpayers can call only an 800 number, answered in God knows where.

Should a beleaguered taxpayer actually locate the IRS office in Grand Junction, there are a few forms available but the clerks aren’t permitted to answer questions. Call the 800 number for that.

So maybe when the regional growth meetings planned by the governor this spring come to your area, a few good questions about this great service-based economy might be in order. Like, where’s the service?

When she’s not on hold while calling distant utility and government offices, Ellen Miller covers the Western Slope for The Denver Post.