It’s sad, but I expect a big company to put me through customer service voice-tree hell when I call for help. Still, our dealings with AT&T this weekend were ridiculous.

Our latest bill came on Friday, and was approximately triple last month’s bill. We have a combined bill for our home service, DSL, cell phones, and Dish Network, and it seemed that the cell phone charges were suddenly sky-high.

So I called the customer service number on our bill and got that perky automated voice that demanded my cell number and other information, then gave me several options to choose from, none of which got me through to an actual human being, until about the 9th layer of Dante’s Phone Tree. That person looked up my information and said that my account was paid up in full. I countered that I had a bill in front of me that said otherwise. She said, “Well, we don’t have anything like that on my screen. Maybe you should talk to Accounts Receivable.”

Before I could object, she patched me through to what should have been another human being, but turned out to be another robotic phone tree voice, which informed me that a customer service representative would be “happy” to help me after a wait of six minutes. Even though I know that “happy to help” is a euphemism for “underpaid, bitter, and hoping not to have the job outsourced to India,” I had no choice. I put the speaker phone on and spent the time answering my e-mail.

When a human person finally picked up the line (after, ahem, eight minutes), she told me that she couldn’t help me because she only worked for AT&T Wireless, and this was a matter for the people in the Combined Billing department. Before the first of several profanities could work their way from my brain to my lips, I was back on hold, being transferred to yet another person. Fortunately, the third human came on the line relatively quickly, only to tell me that the problem was obviously in their cell phone division and that, if I’d be kind enough (!) to hold, she’d connect me to someone there who could help me. I didn’t even bother suppressing my chortle.

By this point, I was convinced that I was talking to people in adjacent cubicles of the same office who had decided that, in return for being forced to work on a holiday weekend, were determined to take it out on anyone foolish enough to call and require assistance of any kind. Well, you know what happened next. The fourth person I was transferred to, from the cell phone division, told me the exact same thing the first person I had spoken to had told me (“we don’t have any charges like that on our screen”).

It was at this point that I slammed down the phone and asked my wife to deal with it. It’s not that she’s more patient than I am — it’s that I simply can’t fathom how several people who work for the same company’s customer service department can not only offer absolutely no service, but also have completely different information about my account and refuse to believe that my complaint is valid. Because I’m the kind of person with so much free time that I think it’s hysterical to create phony scenarios with bogus billing data to see how they’ll react.

My wife, on the other hand, knows these situations well. I call her our Family Ombudswoman.

She once got a case of Ragu spaghetti sauce sent to our home because they had changed the recipe of our favorite sauce. I have invoked her name with store clerks who wouldn’t take back an item, telling them they had two choices: accept the return and give me a refund, or deal with my wife later, in which case they’d end up accepting the return and giving me a refund. The woman once got an entire new high-chair delivered to our doorstep because the one she’d bought in the store had a small rip in the fabric.

So I knew she could bring AT&T to its knees, or at least get an explanation of what the hell was going on with our phone bill. And she would do it by getting to the first person, and then making him stay on the line and fix this, no matter how long it took or how many supervisors had to be dragged into the conversation, without being transferred all over AT&T-land.

The end result? It took almost an hour, but she finally uncovered the truth. It turned out that AT&T hadn’t billed us for our cell phone service for several months — since I bought my iPhone and began Combined Billing. So the charges are accurate, and we really do owe the amount on our bill, contrary to what some of their own employees see on their computer screens.

That’s fine. I don’t mind paying for services I signed up for and use (the miscellaneous fees and taxes that are tacked on are a whole other argument), so we’ll gladly pay the bill. But I know we’re not alone in our frustration with this and other customer service departments. If your company writes “Question about your bill? Call this 800 number” on the invoice, then it is shameful to force your customers to go through this obstacle course of non-assistance.

After all, not everyone is married to The Family Ombudswoman.