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Not for the Faint of Heart : There's an Iguana in My Dishwasher . . . and Other Tales of Terror From Consumer Hot Lines


The woman calling the Pillsbury hot line wants to know if she should use the high-altitude recipe on the cake box now that she lives in a 14th-floor apartment.

The guy phoning General Electric's Answer Center needs help freeing a pet iguana trapped inside a dishwasher.

Meanwhile, on Beano's anti-flatulence 1-800 number, a businessman rings because someone left a note on his desk instructing him to dial about "a gas leak."

Each year, millions of calls like these zip across telephone wires to toll-free hot lines for such products as Spam, Crest, Twinkies and Cheez Whiz.

Answering them is a strange and often difficult business.

Although most callers lob harmless questions about ingredients or nutrition, operators also come up against perverts, pranksters, complainers and con artists.

"This isn't [a job] for the faint of heart," says Nancy Friedman, a consultant and trainer who dubs herself the Telephone Doctor. "They get all sorts of weird things."

Nevertheless, more companies are relying on toll-free lines for a competitive edge. The trend is also spreading overseas, with sometimes disastrous results.

Even in the United States, telephones are a relatively new fixture in consumer affairs. For decades, recipe requests, complaints--even marriage proposals for Betty Crocker--were handled almost exclusively by mail.

The granddaddy of toll-free product numbers emerged at Whirlpool, which christened its "Cool Line" in 1967, the year AT&T introduced 800 service.

Inaugurated with just a handful of operators--who spent much of their time fielding calls from people simply curious to see what 800 service was all about--the Whirlpool line has since ballooned into a 24-hour mini-conglomerate with 360 employees in two cities taking 3.6 million inquiries a year.

Inevitably, a few folks phone in on Christmas just to see if operators really are standing by, which they are. (Some even cook their holiday dinners with the appliances kept on hand to help trouble-shoot customer questions).

Other toll-free numbers enjoy similar popularity. Procter & Gamble, which entered the 1-800 arena in 1974 with a Duncan Hines brownie mix hot line, now receives nearly 3 million contacts a year on more than 100 products (calls are routed to specialists in bar soaps, food and beverages, beauty care and other categories).

G.E. picks up the telephone 3.5 million times annually, Coca-Cola and Pillsbury log about 500,000 calls apiece.

Even seemingly uncomplicated products draw calls. The James River Corp., which produces Northern toilet paper, gets about 36,000 inquiries a year, many of which ask, "What's the correct way to unroll toilet tissue--from the top or the bottom?" (Their answer: There is no right or wrong way.) Other consumers claim to eat the T.P. for fiber content; a few report sightings of the company's fictional Brawny paper towel man.

People also phone with historical questions (no, Fig Newtons aren't named for Sir Isaac Newton; they're named after Newton, Mass.), chemistry conundrums (mint Lifesavers emit sparks of light if you chew them in the dark because of a reaction between the wintergreen flavoring and crystalline sugar) and accidental discoveries (Efferdent denture cleanser dissolves toilet stains).

It isn't easy to fluster hot-line operators. Armed with computerized company manuals and weeks of specialized training, many are fonts of product trivia.

One legendary General Electric technician even diagnosed a mysterious refrigerator noise by having the customer hold the phone up to the appliance.

Some calls, however, are simply too bizarre to anticipate:

* A gentleman phoning Miller beer wanted to buy a dress that was hanging from a clothesline in one of the company's commercials. (It turned out to be an enlarged photograph of a doll outfit.)

* A Windex caller wondered if the cleaner was harmful to reptiles (he had mistaken it for a water bottle and sprayed his pet lizards). Answer: The animals would be safe (not to mention streak-free).

* A woman dialed Coca-Cola offering to mortgage her house to buy a date with the hunky actor who peels off his shirt in a diet Coke ad. (The company declined.)

* G.E. has fielded consumer questions on whether it's OK to drink the water from a dehumidifier (it isn't) or use refrigerator racks to barbecue (no again).

Running a hot line isn't cheap. Salaries alone--which average about $22,000 per operator--can push costs into the millions for a call center with 50 or more employees. But many companies find it a worthwhile investment.

A 1992 survey found that two-thirds of American manufacturers had consumer 800 numbers, up from 40% a decade earlier.

Colgate-Palmolive Vice President Grace Richardson says telephone correspondence is cheaper than answering mail--and it builds customer loyalty.

When Palmolive shoppers complained that they couldn't squeeze the last dab out of a liquid dishwasher detergent bottle, the company devised a gel formula and sent free samples to all who called.

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