Alan BelniakGeneral8 Comments

How may I direct your call?

How may I direct your call?

When I was younger, calling customer service meant waiting on hold and talking to a person.  The process was infrequent, and never enjoyable, but usually tolerable .  It did, however, always involve waiting… and always talk to a human.  In the mid-90s (in my recollection, anyway), the term ‘phone menu’ became common place.  Instead of a human voice on the other end of the line, it’s a phone menu, prompting you to press a numeral that generally corresponds to your request.  (side note: don’t you love the “please listen, because our options have changed”? You know they haven’t… that’s just bribery to make you wait through the menu!)

When I first interacted with these, it was heaven-sent.  No more having to talk to someone who just doesn’t get it, I thought.  Getting right to the root of my problem, I thought.  And many of the people I associated with thought the same.  Too often, the people on the other end of the line either weren’t listening or just didn’t know how to route or answer a call.  Less knowledgeable?  Perhaps.  Underpaid?  Likely.  But human.

These phone menus grew in complexity and ubiquity.  In fact, so much so that some used voice prompts instead of menu presses, and some are so many leverls deep that you forget what some of your options are.  The voice prompts-only menus are especially bad when you are in a crowded area (like an airport) and you need to confirm something (like transportation or a hotel or something).  All of this adds to frustration, and it adds up quickly.  In fact, so much so, that it now surpasses that of when humans ran the phone lines.  Some of these phone menus provide a way to get to a human (an “agent”, a misnomer if ever heard one).  Some employ straight-forward tactics, like pressing zero at the prompts.  Some are trickier, such as 1, then *#,*#,*# (I’m not kidding; this is for Anthem Blue Cross & Blue Shield).  Others work by just saying “agent!” over and over again (my preferred approach).  If you haven’t bookmarked the Get Human site yet, you should.  Never call customer service again without consulting it – it gives you the by-pass to get to a human for many companies.

So, why the return to humans?  Here’s my hypothesis: in the beginning, humans did the job with mediocrity.  Despite it not being superior, you still have to pay humans to do a mediocre job.  Then, someone invented the phone menu, and marketed it as a cost-savings.  “Brilliant!”, the cost-cutters at companies said.  “We’ll save lots of money!”  Well, the honeymoon was short-lived.  Sure, the system may have cost less in the long-run (I have no idea what the break-even is on these kinds of things), but what I think many companies failed to factor in was the fact that it incredibly frustrates their customers.

The first few times I used one of these, I loved the simplicity and not having to talk to a human.  But I quickly realized that I started only calling customer service or technical support or whatever when I had a real problem I couldn’t solve.  Like, only when it was an issue that was fuzzy or ambiguous.  Essentially, I only called when my problem didn’t “fit” in a phone menu.  So when I have to wade through more than one menu, I start to get irritated.  “All I want to do is talk to an agent!” I scream, to no one in particular.  The circular nature of this is sadly hilarious to me.

If companies care about customer loyalty and happy, satisfied customers (like Adidas, WestJet, Walgreens, Alamo, and others), they will abandon the phone menus.  They will put us in touch with a human.  And the human will be well-trained, not to push buttons and route a call (that’s what a phone menu can do!), but to listen, engage, and help. Isn’t that why we called customer service and technical support in the first place?

I know this will likely cost more money.  I’d gladly pay more money (within reason) to not have to wade through a phone menu and instead get an agent.  How about you?  Am I alone in this?  Would you pay a few pennies or dollars more to get a human versus a phone menu?  I’m interested in comments from both sides.  Maybe I’m missing something here.