What services does the telephone operator offer or provide nowadays?

My experience concerns the US, but I’m open to hearing about other countries if there is relevant information available. Please do mention the country in your response.

When I was a kid, the telephone operator was someone who used to have a much greater purpose in manually routing phone calls, but by our day in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s was still someone who was relevant in some contexts. For example, you could call the operator from a payphone and ask to charge the call to your home phone bill, and they would set up a custom one-time linkage. Yes, I knew that there were actually multiple operators, and had a vague idea that there were different kinds of operators, e.g. one might have worked for the local Telco and handled local stuff, but would need to transfer you to a long distance operator at one of the long distance phone companies if you needed long distance services.

  1. How often, and in what circumstances, is talking to a live telephone operator useful today? I’m primarily interested in cases other than talking to a customer service representative in order to start service, cancel service, or handle routine billing matters. E.g. talking to a customer service rep about a proposed call and how much that might cost could constitute “talking to the operator”, but just calling and asking what your current bill is or whether you can pay your bill with a GreenCard Delux from the Bank of Ruritania isn’t. Consider it the difference between talking to technical support and customer service. For example, can you wheedle the operator into guaranteeing that your next call to the Czech Republic will be routed via the Irish BluStar satellite and the Continental Routing Center in Berlin, none of those stupid Romanian router offices, they stink?

  2. When was the last year in which talking to an operator was a normal thing?

One minor example is that free TTY relays for the hard of hearing are still around. If one party of the conversation cannot hear well and has a teletypewriter (or cell phone/computer equivalent), telcos in the US are required to provide free operators to help those people talk over the phone. The operator will place or answer calls, transcribe it to/from text, and pass it over to the hard of hearing person.

Essentially they are a human text to speech service, and they generally work better than voice recognition software.

Note: This is also a great way to prank call people because the operators are required by law to say whatever you ask them to, and you can also command them to not identify themselves as a TTY operator.

In the UK, dialling 100 for UK calls and 155 for international, will get you an operator who can help with a connection problem.It was some years ago, but I have used this when I was trying to call a relative on a landline but getting no answer which worried me. The operator tested the line and rang me back to say it was out of order and she had reported the fault.

100 can also be used to transfer the charge to the landline receiving the call. I don’t think it works for international calls though.

I remember one evening during the days of the Nixon administration, that my friends and I were in such a condition that we NEEDED to know the name of Geppetto’s cat from Pinocchio. Looking back, I think we owe that operator an apology. And the DJ at the local “Underground” FM station who ultimately gave us the name.

It was Figaro

It’s like a human internet. Sounds painful.

You should have posted this question 10 years ago. :slight_smile: I was a local telephone operator in the US between the years of 2003-2005. We were a dwindling few back then, and even more so now (I heard that the call center I worked in closed in ~2006).

I was the operator you reached when you dialed 0 (called a “toll and assistance operator”). Another group of people on the other side of the room did directory assistance (the operators you get when you dial 411). Most people did not understand the difference, and would ask me for numbers, and I would tell them to call 411. We could not transfer to 411 except in limited circumstances, since a call to DA cost the customer money, and a call dialed by us, unless it was a toll-free number, usually carried an operator assisted charge (a call to 0 was free).

We did not answer billing questions, etc. We had no access to that information. Those questions were answered by the business office, and we transferred people there quite regularly. We also transferred people to repair if their phone was broken.

I would say that the most relevant portion of my job in the 00’s was helping disabled callers. Callers who were blind or otherwise disabled would dial 0 for operator assistance, and we would dial their numbers for them without the operator assisted charge. If they did not know the number they needed to call, we would call directory assistance, take down the number the DA operator gave, and then dial the number for them. We had a fair number of “regulars” who used this service.

Before 911 was common everywhere, the 0 operator could connect you with emergency services if you didn’t know the number. We could still do that. We had emergency numbers for every town in the areas we served. 911 is strictly better–it is automatic. However, if 911 doesn’t work for some reason, give 0 a try.

My favorite types of calls when I was an operator:

Verify/Interrupt - yes, we could break in on your phone call in an emergency just like on TV. We did this for the police and emergency services, and also offered it as a paid service to customers. We could verify conversation on the line (it was garbled, we didn’t know what they were saying), and we could interrupt the conversation and request that they give up the line. Scared quite a few people that way.

Collect calls - most of these were automated, but sometimes people asked the robot for “operator” and then we would dial the call and say, “This is Your Local Telephone Company with a collect call from Skeeter. Would you like a free rate quote before accepting charges?” I liked hearing the goofy names people would give me…and most weren’t scams…the called party would usually accept. We did not do many person-to-person calls, since they were always operator assisted and very expensive (when the operator offers you a rate quote, say YES!)

People calling from pay phones asking us to dial 1-800 numbers: These were the phone numbers from prepaid calling cards, and many people figured out that if the operator dialed the number (for free, since it’s toll-free), the card did not dock you minutes for the “pay phone surcharge”. In 2007, I tried this trick at a pay phone in Yellowstone Park, and the operator refused to dial it, so policy changed somewhere in that time. I liked these calls because they were quick and easy!

My least favorite calls:

People asking what time it was: Around the time changes for Daylight Saving Time, this got really bad. All the operator does is look up at the wall at the clock and tell you the time. People would also ask the day and date quite frequently. These people tended to be elderly. If there’s one thing I learned from my stint as an operator, it’s that aging sucks.

Prank calls: Always annoying. Except the kid who called asking if there was a Beaver Crossing Nebraska. He thought he was quite dirty, but there really is a town by that name, so it was vaguely clever.

People calling from pay phones not owned/operated by the phone company: And how are they supposed to know that? Not much I could do to help them. Actually, I couldn’t help people much with the pay phones we operated, either, but I could tell the difference between a quarter, dime, and nickel when they dropped them in the slot.

People calling from cell phones: Can’t help you much either. Call 611 for your cellular provider. Unless you need emergency services and 911 doesn’t work. Then I can help you.

Suicidal callers: Very scary and stressful, but we did have a procedure to try to get them to a suicide hotline in their area or emergency services of some sort. I had two suicidal callers within the space of an hour late one night, and that pretty much convinced me I needed to find a new line of work.

People who needed help with interLATA (“long distance”) calls: “00” was supposed to get you to that operator. Unless the carrier did not offer that service, or you did not actually have a long distance carrier on your line (you needed to choose one, many people did not bother). We could not transfer you, as that would be “recommending a long distance carrier” and illegal. I could only help with calls within your LATA (or “calling area”, as we tried to explain it to customers.) Some calls within a LATA could be “long distance” and carry a charge–for instance, the state of Wyoming, which is rather large, is basically only one LATA, so it could still be “long distance” to call across the state, but the call would be handled and billed by Your Local Telephone Company. Confused yet? We were left with quite a broken system after the breakup of Ma Bell in 1984–a broken system the layperson did not understand at all. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 confused things further. What a mess.

I’m not sure what role the 0 operator plays ten years later, with the decimation of pay phones and the increasing march of technology…even a lot of the things we did for disabled customers could probably be taken care of by technology now. I imagine that there is a lot of serving elderly customers who don’t see a need to change the way they’ve always done things. However, even 10 years ago, we were not “required” by the vast majority of people who used telephones unless they wanted to interrupt lines, make person-to-person calls, or had some sort of problem with the telephone equipment.

How exactly did Station to station and Person to Person calls work? Do they still exist?

Not all phone companies offer the service. AT&T still does. Person to person and operator-assisted station to station calls connected by an AT&T operator both cost $13.50 plus $1.49 per minute (plus USF fee, plus various carrier cost recovery fees, plus billing fee if you are not an AT&T subscriber, plus tax). Intra-state and international rates may vary. Calling card rates vary.

No one in their right mind would place a person to person call today. Back in the olden days when long distance calls cost a small fortune, if you were trying to reach a specific person you ran the risk of being billed for a call if someone answered the phone (someone else living at the same address, the company switchboard operator, the person’s secretary, etc) but the person you wanted to talk to could not be reached. If you had to call back several times, the charges could really add up. So you called the operator and said “I want to speak to B.D. Peekskill” at Klondike5-0123." The operator would dial the number and say “I have a call for B.D. Peekskill” and, if necessary, would wait on the line as the call was transferred from the switchboard to BD’s secretary, and finally to BD. If BD could not come to the phone, the operator asked if you wanted to speak to someone else. If not, you hung up and there would be no charge for the call. If the operator got BD on the line, there would be a modest additional charge for the operator’s help, but nothing absurd like today. If it took you several tries to reach BD, calling person to person would save you money.

Of course, as technology evolved, you could dial 0+ the number yourself and just tell the operator you wanted to speak to BD Peekskill. As technology progressed further, you could choose from an automated menu.

A station to station call is a call where you will be billed as soon as anyone answers the phone. This includes regular direct dialed calls you make every day. There are also operator-assisted station-to-station calls. These include calls from payphones, calls where you ask the operator to dial for you for whatever reason, calling card calls, “time and charges” calls (the operator calls you back after you hang up to tell you the length and cost of the call), and other miscellaneous services.

Another use for person-to-person calls, back in the day, was as a prearranged signal. For example, if you wanted to let someone know that you had arrived home safely, or needed to be picked up at the bus station, you would call them and ask for yourself. The person who answered would say she’s not here to take the call, and you would not be charged (or would get your money back from the pay phone). Of course, this was not fair to the telephone company.

An example of this: Bob Wehadababyitsaboy

Before Google, we librarians used to answer tons of ready reference questions like these. Before my time. (We still answer a crapton of phone number questions.)

There is NOTHING better for a student than to be on friendly terms with the research librarian. Especially if you get her curious about the topic you’re writing your paper on. But in the situation I was remembering, I doubt any librarian would be available to answer a stupid question like that at 10:45 pm on a Saturday night.

I don’t think Norway has any services offered through an operator these days. Possibly with the exception of having a call routed to offshore radio, but I can’t seem to find if that’s still a service.