Things to Do in Customer-Service Hell

I am probably typical in that I hate making a customer-service call to just about any large company. The odds of getting useful information in anything under a half hour are pretty slim. One problem is that many companies’ “phone trees” — the automated menus that ask you to mash one button after the next — are silly mazes that have you chasing your tail. This is additionally frustrating when you discover, as I remember reading a few years ago, that some companies actually monitor how hard you are pushing the buttons or how aggressively you are reciting the voice prompts, presumably to identify customers who may cause trouble.

One solution to Phone Tree Hell is the beautifully named GetHuman database, which provides a nearly encyclopedic list of companies’ phone numbers and the string of menu choices you must press to bypass the phone tree and get to a human. Example: “SUNOCO … 800-?278-?6626 … Press 0 five times, then mumble when prompted for an account number.”

Now there’s a new website, still in beta, called Bringo! (a.k.a. NoPhoneTrees.com), which takes a different approach. Here’s how Bringo’s Marcin Musiolik describes the project: “Our mission is to help users skip phone trees and connect with a real human on the customer support phone lines at many companies throughout the U.S. Users simply choose the company they wish to call, and we’ll dial the company directly, navigate their phone tree, and call them back when they are in queue for an operator or customer service representative.”

I can imagine that some people won’t be interested in giving out their phone numbers, even to a website that’s providing a free and pretty useful service. I can also imagine that some people may be tempted to exploit this service, getting a customer-service rep on the line and then, since it cost nothing to do so, hanging up on them out of spite for all the past injustices.

Modern life may not be particularly fair, but at least it’s not boring.


william

Hang up? Even better would be to connect two representatives of the same company, or perhaps two reps from different companies that you don't like. I'm sure there would be lovely arguments about who called whom and why.

msp

"One solution to Phone Tree Hell is the beautifully named GetHuman database..."

Maybe the Dubner posts are worth reading after all...

Dan

Can someone explain to me what's so great about getting a human on the phone? In my experience, any information I get from a human is usually wrong, while information from machines, if available, is always right.

zbicyclist

Dan has a point about the information from machines being more reliable -- but if you need any sort of nonstandard action taken, you need to get a human to take it.

Be sure to get the human's ID# up front. If you wait until the end, they will sometimes refuse to give it, or give it in a blurry way and then hang up.

An amusing [if it's not you] story: I was talking to my Dad tonight -- relatives had been worried since they'd call and he couldn't call back. Dad's 83, so people worry. To save a few bucks, and against his son's strong recommendation, he signed up for a "phone over your cable line" service.

First, they disconnected his old AT*T service (OK) but the cable phone didn't work right.

In fixing it, they cut off his cable service entirely (and, of course, the phone). The cable TV had to be fixed by the cable company, which is either unaffiliated with this cable phone company or pretends to be. But they only partly got the phone working.

When I talked to him, he could receive calls, but couldn't call out unless the call was local.

And, of course, he had to make all the "phone tree" calls from a neighbor's house. He was spreading out the calls among different neighbors so as not to try their patience too much.

Tuesday he's going to try to cancel the service. I told him to get a good night's sleep on Monday, because he'll need a lot of patience on Tuesday.

Read more...

stuart

The thing about phone trees that drive me potty is that if you go for the sales line they answer straight away while if you go for tech support you wait and wait. It's not a surprise that new business takes precedence over existing customers but it does drive me mad...

maxkalehoff

I find that voice prompts work better when you only answer in raging expletives. The F word works pretty well, particularly this phrase, which I photographed from a t-shirt hanging in a store-window in the East Village: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maxkalehoff/202364021/

But even worse than phone trees are company trees. What are company trees? Companies that are so big and have so many branches and are so clueless that the the live humans who work there end up having to clue what's going on. Consequently, you end up chasing your tail as they bounce you around from division to division. It's a bureaucratic failing that results in poor customer service and extremely unhappy customers. Here's one such example that involved me, as well as numerous others: http://attentionmax.com/blog/2006/07/lowes_breakdown_in_customer_se.html

Cheers,
Max Kalehoff

VancouverGurl

I abhor phone trees too. If you have a human being answering the phone right away (or least simplying pressing 0) it would make life so much easier. And yes, you'll be happy that you recorded the representative's name and tracking number of phone call / request because something will always go wrong while they process your request.

menguzar

The way I understand the "customer service hell", is about clueless support people trying to walk you through "well now.. let's right-click on "my computer" on your desktop, and go to properties from there"...

They are like a kind of "support tree" and trying to feel your way through them until the information you need (like the DNS addresses for your ISP) makes you feel.. weird.. Like you are something with tentacles but no eyes -and you're trying to find your way in a maze.

A little tip for the most unfortunate: all call centers have people answering the phone, people supervising the people answering the phone, people coordinating the people supervising the people answering the phone.. and so on.

Everything moves "upwards" if "necessary".

If you feel like you can't get to do what you want to do and feel the inadequacy of the people meant to 'support' you, try to extend the duration of the call.

The logs for calls varying greatly from the average call time (which is something like 3-4 minutes mostly. so "varying greatly" means "over 15 minutes") are -generally- automatically forwarded to the next level.

The supervisor's job is to identify the causes for the extension and make adjustments if necessary. Next time you call, after 1-2 days, there's a great chance that your problem will be treated adequately.

(Of course, this takes place in a universe where supervisors actually *do* their jobs.)

Read more...

Abi

Today I had the unfortunate joy of using Amazon.com's 'Don't call us, we'll call you' service. Within seconds of entering my phone number online, their computers called me and connected me with a local CSR. She was friendly and competent and I didn't have to navigate a phone tree.

Now that I realize her 'competence' made me happy, I'm a bit depressed about the state of customer service in the DC area.

Ron Turner

My friend just emailed me about a new site at www.contacthelp.com that contains what looks like hundreds of companies, their phone numbers, instructions for reaching a live person, etc. You can even upload recordings of customer service calls and update/add listings as well. Very cool site!

Pat Torrinson

Good article. Here are 4 very specific techniques to deal with the hell that is automated customer service:

http://smashgods.com/2008/07/11/four-top-techniques-to-conquer-automated-customer-service/

Good stuff.

JohnSavvy

How about a database that shows how to bypass outsourced Customer Service reps...

william

Hang up? Even better would be to connect two representatives of the same company, or perhaps two reps from different companies that you don't like. I'm sure there would be lovely arguments about who called whom and why.

msp

"One solution to Phone Tree Hell is the beautifully named GetHuman database..."

Maybe the Dubner posts are worth reading after all...

Dan

Can someone explain to me what's so great about getting a human on the phone? In my experience, any information I get from a human is usually wrong, while information from machines, if available, is always right.

zbicyclist

Dan has a point about the information from machines being more reliable -- but if you need any sort of nonstandard action taken, you need to get a human to take it.

Be sure to get the human's ID# up front. If you wait until the end, they will sometimes refuse to give it, or give it in a blurry way and then hang up.

An amusing [if it's not you] story: I was talking to my Dad tonight -- relatives had been worried since they'd call and he couldn't call back. Dad's 83, so people worry. To save a few bucks, and against his son's strong recommendation, he signed up for a "phone over your cable line" service.

First, they disconnected his old AT*T service (OK) but the cable phone didn't work right.

In fixing it, they cut off his cable service entirely (and, of course, the phone). The cable TV had to be fixed by the cable company, which is either unaffiliated with this cable phone company or pretends to be. But they only partly got the phone working.

When I talked to him, he could receive calls, but couldn't call out unless the call was local.

And, of course, he had to make all the "phone tree" calls from a neighbor's house. He was spreading out the calls among different neighbors so as not to try their patience too much.

Tuesday he's going to try to cancel the service. I told him to get a good night's sleep on Monday, because he'll need a lot of patience on Tuesday.

Read more...

stuart

The thing about phone trees that drive me potty is that if you go for the sales line they answer straight away while if you go for tech support you wait and wait. It's not a surprise that new business takes precedence over existing customers but it does drive me mad...

maxkalehoff

I find that voice prompts work better when you only answer in raging expletives. The F word works pretty well, particularly this phrase, which I photographed from a t-shirt hanging in a store-window in the East Village: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maxkalehoff/202364021/

But even worse than phone trees are company trees. What are company trees? Companies that are so big and have so many branches and are so clueless that the the live humans who work there end up having to clue what's going on. Consequently, you end up chasing your tail as they bounce you around from division to division. It's a bureaucratic failing that results in poor customer service and extremely unhappy customers. Here's one such example that involved me, as well as numerous others: http://attentionmax.com/blog/2006/07/lowes_breakdown_in_customer_se.html

Cheers,
Max Kalehoff

VancouverGurl

I abhor phone trees too. If you have a human being answering the phone right away (or least simplying pressing 0) it would make life so much easier. And yes, you'll be happy that you recorded the representative's name and tracking number of phone call / request because something will always go wrong while they process your request.

menguzar

The way I understand the "customer service hell", is about clueless support people trying to walk you through "well now.. let's right-click on "my computer" on your desktop, and go to properties from there"...

They are like a kind of "support tree" and trying to feel your way through them until the information you need (like the DNS addresses for your ISP) makes you feel.. weird.. Like you are something with tentacles but no eyes -and you're trying to find your way in a maze.

A little tip for the most unfortunate: all call centers have people answering the phone, people supervising the people answering the phone, people coordinating the people supervising the people answering the phone.. and so on.

Everything moves "upwards" if "necessary".

If you feel like you can't get to do what you want to do and feel the inadequacy of the people meant to 'support' you, try to extend the duration of the call.

The logs for calls varying greatly from the average call time (which is something like 3-4 minutes mostly. so "varying greatly" means "over 15 minutes") are -generally- automatically forwarded to the next level.

The supervisor's job is to identify the causes for the extension and make adjustments if necessary. Next time you call, after 1-2 days, there's a great chance that your problem will be treated adequately.

(Of course, this takes place in a universe where supervisors actually *do* their jobs.)

Read more...