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411's No Local Call

“Is Madison Square Garden on Madison Avenue?” Outsourced operators cause information-age disconnect.


Why doesn’t 411 work anymore? Why, when you call to get the number for the nearby Duane Reade, does the operator reply, “We show nobody by that name in New York,” and when you say, “It’s a business,” she can find only one location—“I’m sorry, sir, that’s the only one listed in New York.” And then a pause. “There’s some in other towns. Manhattan, Brooklyn.” Why, when you call for the Villard Bar, does the robot operator think you want “Sephora,” and then the human operator connects you to a man shouting over a vacuum at the Village Juice Bar on 14th Street?

These days, when you dial directory assistance, Ma Bell doesn’t pick up the other end of the line. And the person who does probably isn’t a New Yorker. Of course, you’ve probably discovered this for yourself if you’ve noticed an operator pronouncing Houston Street like it’s in a red state. Like everything else, 411 has been outsourced. “There are so few places left in the U.S. where the 411 operator is actually in the city with the information being requested,” says Meg MacRae, a managing partner of the Paisley Group, which evaluates directory-assistance services based on customer satisfaction. Regulations require local telephone companies to offer directory assistance, but they don’t dictate where the operators should be.

As a result, there’s a good chance the person who picks up when you dial 411 knows New York mainly from Seinfeld reruns. Just try to find a number for MoMA (“I have MoMA Books and MoMA Design and Book store, but nothing for a MoMA”) or Madison Square Garden (“Is that on Madison Avenue?”). According to MacRae, operators with “local knowledge”—the directory-assistance catchphrase for actually having lived somewhere—tend to answer customer queries more quickly. “But in terms of whether the person will be more accurate or more polite, location doesn’t make a difference,” she insists. (Maybe if you call back enough times . . . ) Perhaps New Yorkers are just picky: “Getting an answer faster is important to some customers.”

A spokesperson for Verizon, which is keeping its headquarters in the city, says it doesn’t outsource directory assistance. But the company is huge enough these days that 411 calls are often routed out of town (but usually within the general area, whatever that might mean). As for AT&T, a spokesperson says the company has a similar general-area policy for 411, but he sounds like he misses Ma Bell, too. “Every company wants to take care of people locally, but it’s a global world,” he says. “That local charm has faded into historic memory.”


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