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Companies claim automated systems save millions – 5/16/12

‘Press 9 for More Options’

Companies claim automated phone-answering systems save them millions. I have my doubts.

Automated Phone Dialer Server RoomOne of the deep mysteries of modern life is why, in a nation with some 14 million unemployed people, it has become nearly impossible to call a store, a business or a government agency and speak to a live human being. I’m not a Luddite; I don’t rage against the machine; and I’ve always argued that the digital age is making life better in almost every way. But there are some things even in the 21st century that humans still do better than robots. One of them is providing customer service on the telephone.

Telephone answering services—or what the industry calls “Interactive Voice Response”—gets my vote for the runaway worst invention of the last half-century. They should call them anti-customer retention devices.

Airlines (with the exception of Southwest, which almost always picks up within a minute) are among the worst offenders. I recently called United Airlines in a futile attempt to spend dollars to buy their product. Mind you, this is an industry that has lost billions of dollars and much of which has sought federal bankruptcy protection. You’d think they’d be rolling out the red carpet in gratitude.

Instead, I’m greeted with that familiar, annoying voice instructing me that before I will get any help, I need to first answer “a few simple questions.” I keep repeating one word over and over: “agent.” The android says, “Sorry I couldn’t hear you, can you repeat that?” And I practically swallow the mouthpiece as I yell “AGENT,” and then the droid intones, “I think I heard you said you’d like to speak to an agent, is that right?”

Then I was transferred to what they now call the “agent queue.” Excuse me, this is the United States of America, not Russia. We don’t queue up to buy things unless it’s the new iPad or a new line of Air Jordan sneakers. In this particular venture into agent-queue purgatory I’m put on hold for 41 minutes.

This becomes an endurance test. If you rush to the bathroom, that is surely when the agent is going to come on and you’re going to have to start all over.

What’s especially maddening about this whole ritual is that the airlines got the clever idea a few months back that with hundreds of thousands of captive customers stuck in answering service purgatory, they can make money by running radio ads for Home Depot and the like while you wait. Great, the longer I’m on hold, the more money the company makes. I’d say our incentives are misaligned here.

I’ve been doing some research on this issue, and I’ve discovered that customer backlash against automated phone answering services is surging. Websites are proliferating with tips and tricks about how to navigate through these systems, head-fake the robotic gatekeepers, and minimize waiting times.

The first obvious pointer is to say “agent,” “operator,” or “complaint,” over and over, no matter what the question. Another pointer is to never be cooperative or play by their rules; they want you to be as docile as a lamb.

Some experts advise that cursing gets you through the queue faster (but cussing out a real person is rarely advisable), because some of the newer “smart” services have emotion-detection technology, which red flags the operators that there’s a ticked-off person at the other end of the line. It doesn’t hurt to make the robot think you have a rotary phone and you would gladly follow its litany of inane commands but don’t have buttons to push.

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