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.

Roger Dooley

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.

Iljitsch van Beijnum

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.


'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...

Joel Upchurch

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.


(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.

Mike B

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


"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.


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.


Kathy Langfield

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.


What really burns me about being on hold is those companies who's hold system invariably tells me that I'm going to have to wait because they "are experiencing a higher than usual call volume". I don't think that I have ever called our Canadian phone company (Telus) where I didn't get this message, which tells me that they are at higher than usual call volume every hour of every day of the year.

caleb b

I tried to get AT&T internet because it is cheaper than the local cable company. They mailed me an installation disk with instructions that said, and I am not kidding, "for help, visit"

Seriously?? I'm installing the internet, if I had it, I wouldn't need support.

When I called on the phone, I was directed to a call center in India and no one could help me because my question wasn't on their script. They directed me to the Cayman Islands or something, and they couldn't help. After 45 minutes, I hung up and switched back to the local cable company.

Vinay Bavdekar

Ha! My brother experienced the same. He was given a smaller 'window' though. He had to take half the day off from work so that he could be present to have his internet connection installed.


I get my cellphone service from Verizon. And Verizon has no way of contacting its technician in the field? What a hoot!!

Eric M. Jones.

Carfax refused my urgent request to find out who had stolen my identity information. Money had disappeared out of my bank account to pay for someone's car-info purchase. They wouldn't tell me who. This was a major donnybrook. The police wouldn't help.

Then they sent me an email asking how their service was....

Kevin in McLean, VA

Wow. Verizon doesn't have any way to communicate with a field tech. Wonder if they've heard about cell phones?


"We have absolutely NO WAY to reach the technician."

Right, because that would require crazy futuristic stuff like a cellphone or something.

So you have spend ALL day waiting for the technician because they don't have the ability to communicate with their staff? Smart. Thanks for helping me to NEVER choose Verizon as my phone company.


You can take the Seinfeld approach, and just not be there during their "window." There are myriad options cable and home phone service now. I enjoy requesting cable hook-up, telling them I'm only available during set hours (like evenings and some weekends), and then spending $100/mo on something else, because they're ridiculously inflexible. I do it to remind myself why I don't put up with them and to remind them why they don't have my money.


I used to work answering the tech support phones at a large consumer electronics company. I can't be sure that all such organizations are the same, but at that time and place, if a customer hung up while on hold it was called "an abandoned call" and management go *very* twitchy if that number started going up. OTOH, if the customer hung up during the phone tree it was described as "handled by technology" and management got worried if that number went down. So, I make it point to navigate the phone tree, using zero if possible, then wait one minute and not a second longer, on hold. The I hang up. Interestingly I've found that I usually get through on the third or fourth call, and I don't think I'm losing much more time than waiting on hold, but I'm sending a very different message.

If everyone drives those abandoned call numbers up somebody will notice.

Don't get me started on the overseas support situation. The cultural gaps make that simply a non-starter. I called a technician at a web hosting company about a server outage and was told it would be fixed "right away". I called back the next day, and the next, on the third day I said, "please, give me an estimate of when this will be fixed." The answer: "It will be fixed right away." I offered the opinion that "right away" had passed days ago but was told, "no, it will be fixed right away."



HA! Verizon is a cell phone company, right?

"We have no way to reach our technician"??!!

What was their answer when you asked if you could have his cell phone number and you'd call him?


The 2 hours/year I'm on hold, I still don't waste any time - the only time wasted is when I'm actually speaking with a rep.

The rest of the time, I'm multitasking by doing something else while on hold. Am I the only one who does this?