Listen Carefully as Our Menu Options Have Recently Changed

Moving houses has always been like having three teeth removed without anesthetic. These days the pain is accentuated by having to wait on the phone hearing, “Please listen carefully as our menu options have recently changed.” That’s corporate-speak for, “Don’t even bother pressing zero hoping to speak to a human. That’ll just put you back at the beginning.”

My latest such adventure started with an email from the phone company (Verizon). I was told that a technician would come to hook up our new service during the time “window” of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If a window is an opening in a wall, then 8 am to 5 p.m. is more like the whole wall. Trying to shrink the window, I spent more than an hour on hold for one person after another who could only forward me to someone else equally unhelpful. The circular chain of authority finally snapped when the last person claimed (all this discussion is at 10 a.m. on the day itself) “We have absolutely no way to reach the technician.” And then asked “Have I provided excellent service today?”

Let me fight this blood-sucking insanity with one of the few methods that I know: numbers. I’m going to estimate how much of our lives we waste on hold, or talking to people who put us back on hold. A typical figure for me is about 1 hour per week. Of roughly 100 waking hours, that’s 1 percent of my life. Another way to imagine this amount is that I have a 1 percent chance of losing my life to voicemail.

Over a lifetime of 75 years, the voicemail death rate would then be 1/75th of a percent per year. Expressed in the usual units for mortality, the rate is roughly 13 deaths per 100,000 people per year. This rate is higher than that of some serious problems. For example, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s statistics for 2007, suicide and homicide all come in lower than 13 per 100,000 per year (at 11.5 and 6.1, respectively). Which makes sense, for modern voicemail is enough to drive you to one or the other.

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  1. Roger Dooley says:

    Sometimes, there’s a method in their madness. David Pogue of the NY Times has pointed out that the reason for the weirdly long voicemail intros from wireless firms (e.g., offering to send a “numeric page” – when was the last time anyone actually did that?) is to chew up subscriber minutes. Each incident doesn’t use much time, but the aggregate of all voicemails for millions of subscribers is no small deal.

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  2. Iljitsch van Beijnum says:

    Why do you keep calling these people/organizations if it’s so painful?

    I managed to bring my phone interactions with large bureaucracies down to only a few a year. If there’s any possibility to do something online or with paper, I’ll do it that way. I never call helpdesks because they seldom have anything to say that I want to hear and I’m sure the sentiment is mutual.

    If their window for a visit is the entire day, I’ll just stay home the entire day. Which is annoying, but not nearly as annoying as being on the phone for an hour and then STILL have to be home all day.

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    • James says:

      ‘Cause when your internet connection is down, it’s pretty hard to reach tech support online to find out why it’s down :-)

      But after having tried to reach my internet provider’s tech support by phone, I long for the days when I could just listen to prompts and press buttons. Now they have this horrible “voice recognition” thing…

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  3. Joel Upchurch says:

    An hour a week sounds high to me. I personally check for an e-mail option before I try try calling people. When I do call, I will use google voice or use a headset so I can continue to my normal activities while I’m on hold.

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  4. Stu says:

    (Foreword: Most of my experience is with calling medical billing offices.)

    I have yet to find a calling tree where repeatedly mashing the 0 button doesn’t get you to a person. I still get stuck on hold, but at least I know I’m headed in the right direction.

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  5. Mike B says:

    One solution is to not purchase services that involve such terrible customer service experiences.

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    • Roger says:

      You must live somewhere there is a free market. In my American town of 50,000 people there is exactly one local phone provider and one local cable company. This is very typical for historical reasons – the local phone company will be some variant of the old or new AT&T and the cable company will have negotiated a decade long monopoly agreement with the town. There is also only one water company, one trash company, one electricity company etc. There are a choice of two satellite TV companies. 3 of the 4 national cell companies have coverage and it appears like none of the smaller ones do (MetroPCS, Leap, Cricket etc). You can get extremely expensive Internet via radio, or cheaper via the one cable company, or via the phone company, or via some number of other DSL providers who all require a phone line from the phone company and cost more.

      For all practical purposes there is not a market in many services. Consequently you can’t vote with your patronage nor spend more/less on services to get the level of customer service and convenience you want.

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      • Michael says:

        False, you can pay for better service.. Business… T1… T3.. Pri1… OC3… OC10.. OC 48

        You can pay more… you just don’t want to pay those prices

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  6. curt says:

    “Another way to imagine this amount is that I have a 1 percent chance of losing my life to voicemail.”

    That doesn’t seem like a fair description since it assumes that the risk of death is constant throughout your life in every scenario. I would imagine, for example, that you have a higher chance of dying while using voicemail if you are also driving, than if you are sitting on the sofa at home. You would have an exceptionally high chance of death if you happened to be falling from a great height while using voicemail, but I guess that even if you got through to a person immediately, they would still not be likely to save you.

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  7. Jimbo says:

    I understand this is humor, but wow, the numbers have holes you could drive a truck through. First, is the assumption that your 1 hour per week being put on hold is an average across the US population. Some folks have much more time on hold (like people in medical billing offices who have to call insurance companies all the time), but most probably have a lot less.
    Second, I’m sure the distribution is not even, but your chances of dying when you are asleep are certainly not zero. This means the chances of losing your life are 1/168, not 1/100. I don’t have time to do the math, but a quick glance indicates that your chance of death while on hold would be much lower than 13 deaths per 100,000. Finally, the whole premise – that being put on hold will CAUSE death – is preposterous. A much better use of statistics would be that over the course of an average lifetime, 162.5 days are spent on hold. That’s a half a year. Imagine all the lost productivity and time that people could have spent on other things (opportunity cost) of being on hold. But perhaps I just am a grumpy old man who missed the point of the joke.

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  8. Kathy Langfield says:

    Believe it or not there are professionals who create those “phone trees” and “auto attendants” and 90% of us advise against making the program confusing and changing it all the time. We advise our clients to offer 3 to 4 options at most at the first prompt and 2 or 3 at the second prompt. We advise against having multiple levels that ensure that people can never figure it out. Some people even have fun with their greeting – if you call Bronto – you can hear the dinosaur roar.

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