Companies Don't Hate You… They Just Love Phone Trees More

Companies are slowly learning that those infuriating automated phone trees aren’t the answer to their customer service problems. Some experts even claim that automated systems anger customers. The New York Times decided to trace the history of the hated trees, while wondering if things will ever change.

It all started in the ’80s, when corporations birthed the phone tree out of a desire to cut costs and, understandably, gain some distance from their outlandishly outfitted customers. They took the need for space too far, even as America cleaned up its act, forgetting that bad customer service is a bad business decision.

“I’ve listened to thousands of people interacting with machines,” Mr. Rolandi said. “You hear sighs of resignation. You hear people swear. If businesses knew what I knew, they would not design them this way. Many people do not take into account the emotional state of the customer. When you call someone for customer service, you’ve got a problem and you’re probably in a bad mood. You hear someone telling you your call is so important that we won’t let you talk to a human. Then they slap people with too many options, and eventually, you’re in a fight with the system. When you do get a customer representative, you’re loaded for bear.”

The popular conception of outsourced call centers ruining our lives isn’t quite right. Fewer than 10% of call centers are based offshore. As Americans, we can all be proud of the more than 100,000 call centers we host, excluding telemarketers.

The Times thinks the tide is slowly turning in our favor.

For the first time, American corporations are acknowledging “customer service as something worth paying for rather than just red ink,” said [Jon Anton, director of benchmark research at the Center for Customer Driven Quality at Purdue,] who looks at call centers worldwide and, using a number of criteria, compares how well they work. “If you can satisfy customers and keep them buying, it’s as important as marketing.”

He said that in the last year or so some large companies have been creating a chief customer executive, whose success is measured not on profit, but on customer retention.

Another reason for this change is that the very technology that is driving us crazy is helping people fight back.

Consumers are posting their experiences with customer service online and warning people away from businesses that do not offer a good follow-up with customers. Secondly, there are Web sites that tell customers how to get around an automated system.

The Times cites Netflix as one example of an enlightened company switching its emphasis from automated support to well-trained, empowered call centers. We’ve lauded Netflix before, but don’t know of many other companies that are cutting down phone trees in favor of quality support.

What do you think? Are companies slowly improving their service, or are consumers just getting better at biting back?

Far From Always Being Right, the Customer Is on Hold [NYT]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. mgy says:

    Netflix and Apple are two of my favorite companies to deal with. Well-spoken customer service representatives who tend to know what they’re talking about.

  2. LAGirl says:

    Netflix has AMAZING CUSTOMER SERVICE. the few times that i’ve had to call, i got through right away. the rep was EXTREMELY friendly + helpful. resolved my issue right away. even if another competitor came along with a better deal on DVD rentals, i’d stay with Netflix. their customer service is that great.

    LADWP also has very good customer service. hold times aren’t very long and reps are very helpful.

  3. mayrc87 says:

    DELL is the ultimate hell for customer service. My laptop has a bad hard drive and has a service warranty until August of 2009, but I can’t get one person that actually understand the problem.

  4. Concerned_Citizen says:

    There are only two things that upset me with automated phone systems. The first is the system that makes you type in account numbers and other information via the phone and when it connects you to a real person, that person asks for that exact same information again. The second is when a phone system asks you if you want the menu in spanish.

  5. humphrmi says:

    I often wonder if companies measure how many people just start mashing “0” repeatedly in their phone tree systems.

    Worse yet are those voice-activated phone tree systems, intended to make you feel stupid for repeatedly saying the same phrase over and over again to a computer. When I run into those, I like playing with them before I start mashing zero:

    Phone Tree: “Please say what you are calling about”

    Me: “World Peace”

    Phone Tree: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand, please say what you are calling about”

    Me: “What, are you stupid? I want world peace.”

    Phone Tree: “I’m sorry, I still don’t understand…”

    Sometimes at that point it transfers you to an operator.

  6. HonestNigerian says:

    I once worked for GE capital which was handling both the Exxon and Disney credit accounts. On the Exxon side, the phone tree held up customers for about 20/30 minutes before they could get to a real person. Several times I was told off for telling customers not to press any buttons at all so they could get through faster. I was told this only extended the average “hold” time they had to report to Exxon because even when they got through the phone tree, they still had to wait in queue. on the other hand, disney had no wait time. you were even required to smile while talking to a disney rep or customer. That’s was Disney’s requirement and what they paid for. I guess they cared a little more about their customers than Exxon did.

  7. tysonburnsred says:

    microsoft(xbox live particularly) is extra annoying about that. half the time i say an option it gave me and it thinks i said something else, makes me want to throw the phone.

  8. induscreed says:

    @Concerned_Citizen: yup, completely agree.

    I’ve had to speak with AT&T tech support a couple of times and it bugs me having to repeat the same information over and over, why dont they have a centralized system, thats accessible to every support tech who gets the transfer?

  9. ConsumptionJunkie says:

    I have to say that Apple has great customer svc. both in store and over the phone.

  10. It almost seems like companies like this don’t want your future business. After I bought my HP laptop, I was so fed up and frustrated with the company’s menu tree and tech support that I ended up building my own desktop computer from scratch rather than deal with HP again.

    It amazes me that these computer companies stop being nice to you after you’ve already bought their stuff. Do they think we’ll never buy another computer?

  11. azntg says:

    It’s about time that the companies are realizing what some of the banks did a few years ago.

    See, if I recall correctly, banks used to direct you to the ATMs to try and cut labor (through “incentives” like fees to speak to a teller, etc.). Similar in the phone tree comparison, except in phone trees, we usually don’t have much of a choice unless we happen to have a “direct” number.

    But, it turned out that the unintended side effect was that you couldn’t have tellers try to sell bank products. And let’s face it, when a machine tries to sell us something, we’re much more likely to say “F* off to it” without a second though.

    Same thing with phone trees. We’re much more likely to say “F* off” to a company permanently after we can’t get to an operator when we really need to.

  12. cloudedice says:

    I love L.L. Bean’s phone tree. It consists of an actual, live, native English speaking person who immediately picks up the phone when you call. Then, will either help you, or transfer you directly to the person who CAN help you. More companies should buy these living phone trees.

  13. homerjay says:

    IVR systems where the slightest noise in the background like a tv, car passing, or other people talking causes it to react. Its loud where I am sometimes! Can’t I just press 1 like every other phone system? I’m really not that interested in trying to figure out what word youre trying to get me to say while I shush my kids and roll up my window!

  14. legwork says:

    @mayrc87: I agree Dell Home can be the pits. Their computers and service have failed my customers countless times both on reliability and service. Very similar to HP except for HP’s pesky black hole.

    On the other hand, Dell’s Small Business division is the best mass-market box seller out there. Better computers, knowledgeable support, and an escalation/tracking system that works. What I like best is their follow-up; When they say they’ll call, they mean it. It isn’t unusual to receive daily telephone and email contacts, even when the problem isn’t their fault. None of these big vendors are perfect, but in my experience these guys (& gals) do the best job.

  15. Jesse says:

    Sometimes though I wish that I wouldn’t have to talk to a customer service rep.

    Citibank when you activate any of their cards requires you to call them so “Phil” in India can sell you “Identity Theft Protection.”

    I have to call Sprint to change anything on my account since I am out of contract and want to sell me a renewal.

    The Wall Street Journal won’t let me renew my account online, so I have to sit on hold to make a payment that would take 2 minutes online. Probably so they can sell me a bundled online subscription.

  16. veronykah says:

    @Jesse: I have to agree to that, I was just trying to activate a new credit card and I expected to call the number, input some info and be on my way. Oh no, they did all of that THEN transferred me to someone in India who I could not understand [I lived for 5 years in NYC, I am excellent at understanding wretched English] and when I told him so, he hung up on me!
    Guess I’ll leave that card alone now.
    That being said, if I do have a problem it is nice to speak with an actual representative. Speakeasy used to be wonderful like that, I have noticed the last time I was put on hold for quite awhile…not like the old days where I would call and they would PICK UP THE PHONE!

  17. dragonfire81 says:

    Outsourced call centers aren’t the problem. Call centers period are. I worked for a center here in North America and got tired of all the piss poor management, ridiculous focus on stats and nothing else, backwards policies and general stress inducing calls day in and day out.

    Most of the times I provided decent customer service to customers it was because I chose to go outside the rules or do something not normally done. My customers were happy, my bosses weren’t. Think about that statement for a moment: My bosses were UNHAPPY that I was making customers HAPPY. I wasn’t giving huge credits that weren’t deserved or blatantly breaking rules, but for example sometimes I’d give a frustrated customer $10 credit for being on hold so long and transferred five times. This was considered a violation of policy and you could fail QAs for it.

    Customer service today is not focused on caring about the customers, it’s focused on making as many sales as possible and not really giving a crap about the rest.

  18. kathyl says:

    Some experts even claim that automated systems anger customers.

    And in other news, this just in: grass is green, the sky is blue, water is wet.

  19. Pfluffy says:

    I was angered when I experienced a house (attic) fire on the morning of March 25. I was outside in the backyard in my pjs with my ins. policy in one hand calling my agent with a phone in the other while the fire department and half the town dismantled my home to put out the fire. The agent’s receptionist didn’t want to take any of my information and told me to call the 800 number. It took me over an hour of being transfered from one phone tree to another then from bozo to bozo, each one unable to help me establish a claim. I hung up in frustation without successfully establishing a claim. Suddenly, my agent called me back and started my claims process for me — something he wasn’t supposed to do. But it got me taken care of. A month ago after getting settled into a new place, the ins. co. called to survey me about how happy I was with their service. I told them to ditch the 3 hour long phone menu tree. Someone under that kind of stress does not need the futile phone tree and unhelpful employees once they DO manage to get a human being. I let the ins. co. know exactly how unhappy and unsatisfying that experience was to me with my life and property in jeopardy with no idea where to go or what to do. EVERYONE invovled apologized profusely.

    And this was NOTHING compared to the hoops I had to jump through to complain about the resulting identity theft that a clean up person committed after cleaning out the contents of my home after the fire. I basically had to catch the theif myself and then hand over the case to 3 different police jurisictions — now the (confessed)criminal is behind bars, and I have my account back intact. And that acount will be closed on the next banking day in person, ’cause I’m not dealing with another freakin’ phone tree.

    And just as my luck is running, 3 days ago I had a lightning strike reulting in other fire at the same home. This time, the phone tree was much shorter, and I got a responsive, helpful person to process my claim. I really do think corporate America (in some places) is actually listening to the disgruntled, empowered customers. It’s about time!

    But to get that quick service, I had to email and call my ins. agent, adjuster, and every supervisor around. EECBs are GREAT! And you have to have the guts to back up whatever ultimatum you give in your EECB. If not, don’t even try. You’ll look like a goofball.

  20. CumaeanSibyl says:

    I like automated phone systems, because talking on the phone makes me nervous. The voice-recognition ones are sort of obnoxious, but I really sort of prefer pushing buttons to talking to people. If there’s a way that I can find out the information I need without talking to someone, that’s awesome; if I can get directed to the department that can handle my issue just by pushing a button, that’s also great. Being on hold is a lot more annoying than pushing buttons, and that can happen whether there’s an automated system or not.

    I know I’m not the only person with phone problems, but I also know that we’re kind of in the minority.

  21. headhot says:

    The worst is United with their voice recognition. Try getting the system to understand you at a noisy airport. Its completely useless.

    Last time I tries to use it at Denver, every prompt there was an announcement over the PA. It got comical at a point.

  22. linbey says:


    Yeah and I bet they spent millions in research to find out that people hate phone trees. All they would actually hagve to do is use common sense to think that maybe someone wouldnt like to push buttons for 5 minytes just to talk to someone

  23. Addison says:

    The original programming for the first VM phone tree was done at Tx Instruments and was called mercury…there’s some trivia for ya.

  24. Leah says:

    There is actually a whole branch of research dedicated to understanding phone trees and how they can be optimally used. I went on a date with a guy who works in the field. Of course, when I blithely responded that I just push “0” as much as possible, he said “oh, yeah, companies know about that, so they’re starting to phase that out. No one really wants to talk to people anymore, do they?” He seemed genuinely excited at the possibility of being able to process everything over the phone without ever talking to a live human.

    Perhaps needless to say, but he didn’t get a second date.

  25. legotech says:

    [] how to escape the phone trees of lots of places

  26. bohemian says:

    I prefer to call it telephone hell.

    Like it wasn’t annoying enough wasting time punching buttons on a home phone, it is twice as annoying when you are burning up cell phone minutes on this. I think phone trees are constructed in a way to make you go away rather than actually solve problems.

    The voice recognition stuff is even worse. Like I want to start saying random words out loud while out in public.

  27. coren says:

    While they say they’re reducing or have low numbers of outsourced centers – why is it that most of them are for technology based companies?

  28. coren says:

    Hopefully my other comment doesn’t show and make me look dumb, but what I had said in it was:

    For all the talk about reducing trees and no outsourcing, why is it technology based companies are the most frequent offenders?

  29. DanPVD says:

    I have no problem with some automation and phone trees. Dell is a good example – by entering the express service code into the phone while you’re waiting you save time with the representative.

    But many companies have certainly gone overboard with this as well.

  30. Rando says:

    The VRU utilization rate is around 60-70% for most companies… That means that 70% of the people calling in were able to get their questions answered through the VRU, meaning a rep did not get need to get paid $12/hour to answer that call.

    VRUs save companies millions of dollars each year.

  31. jwissick says:

    If I ever run into voice recognition at a call center, I make a point never to by their product again.

  32. I don’t mind phone trees for certain common tasks — Walgreens’s is pretty painless for refilling my Rx (three buttons, each the first option, takes you to the automatic refill thingie, then entering your refill # is quick and easy). AmEx’s to pay your bill by phone is easy and pretty painless.

    But when something’s gone WRONG, I don’t want to be stuck in a friggin’ phone tree. I want a PERSON. And the longer you make me wait to get a person, the more upset and irrational I’m going to get. I’m already upset!

    And yeah, having to go through an entire damned phone tree telling it exactly what you want and exactly who you are by entering your data a zillion times — then the rep picks up and you have to “verify” everything AND repeat why you’re calling — well, that makes it totally clear your phone tree is just a bullshit delaying tactic.

  33. oh, yeah, and those voice recognition ones? I live in the midwest, goddammit. Your VR things SPEAK midwest American standard — why the fuck can’t they UNDERSTAND midwest American standard????? They NEVER understand what I”m saying! I want to SCREAM when I get one that only lets you speak, won’t let you push a button as an alternative, because I KNOW the damned thing won’t understand me.

  34. RedSonSuperDave says:

    What I love (and by “love” I mean “hate”) is when you are talking to a machine, and then it tells you, “So that we may assist you better, please enter your name, address, and case number” so you punch forty different numbers into the phone, then once you finally get to a real human, they ask you to tell them the information that you just entered.


  35. TechnoDestructo says:

    As long as the menus are well-organized and all options descriptions make sense, the descriptions and instructions are brief, I can press the appropriate button without waiting for the instructions to finish, they don’t attempt to use voice recognition, and I can always get a human if I need one, I don’t mind robots.

  36. timmus says:

    Customer service today is not focused on caring about the customers, it’s focused on making as many sales as possible and not really giving a crap about the rest.

    I agree… and I really wish there was a way that this could be quantified in some way so that I can find out which companies to avoid doing business with.

  37. Sven.T.Sexgore says:

    I prefer IVRs when it comes to doing simple transactions — paying bills with my bank, updating simple information, etc. As they are often quicker than waiting in queue for an agent to do it. On the other hand when I actually *need* to speak to an agent nothing makes me angrier then a convoluted, pointless IVR that seems to just be there to delay me.

    I also second the folks who find that systems where the information you enter into the IVR doesn’t carry over to the service agent are baffling and infuriating. If I had to key in the exact reason for the call and all of my information just to be able to speak with them I expect it to transfer me to the right department and not have to be asked for that information again. (Though when it does happen I don’t take it out on the agents — it’s not their fault the company they work for has an asinine system).

  38. planetdaddy says:

    Catch 22. You can either get a machine or someone who can’t speak understandable English.

  39. monogirl says:

    I love GEICO because when I called for a claim someone immediately answered the phone. No tree, no computer, just a human being who spoke clear english and was friendly and helpful. When he answered the phone I actually spluttered at him for a few seconds-such was my shock at speaking to a real person!

    The UPS phone tree is the worst, half the time it can’t understand what I’m saying. But if you scream at it long enough it will connect you to a person.

  40. biblio26 says:

    I remember freaking out when my wallet was stolen several years ago and it took me forever to get to a person to cancel my credit cards. As I was punching in numbers and waiting to connect to someone, the thief was putting charges on my credit card. I was sooo upset.

    My husband has a really hard time with the voice activated phone system since he’s from France and they don’t understand his accent.

  41. @mgy: I agree with you about apple. When my emac went haywire and I was’nt familiar with how to reboot I called apple customer service. The rep I spoke with sounded suspiciously like spicoli from “fasttimes at ridgemont high” along with a total slacker attitude. I could tell the guy was slumped down in his seat. Normally I would’ve been pissed but the guy was so funny and helpful that I did’nt care.

  42. celyn says:

    A few years ago I was in London and discovered my cell phone company hadn’t turned on worldwide roaming like they were supposed to. Since I was running a conference the week after getting back from London and had given people my cell phone number in case they needed to contact me, this was a major problem. When I called my cell phone company’s international 800 number to fix things, I was immediately dumped into an automated phone tree that required me to punch in my cell phone number.

    Note that I said I called the number specifically intended for contacting the company from overseas. The tones on UK phones are different from those in the US. No matter what I did, the system wouldn’t recognize anything I dialed in and it had no option to transfer me to a human. After a certain number of failed attempts, it just disconnected me. By the time I did manage to connect with customer service (which took days), I’d gone from vaguely annoyed to enraged and, instead of just asking for them to fix the problem, demanded and got several weeks of free service.

  43. stinerman says:


    That must really suck. I can’t imagine the trauma you go through when you’re reminded that some people don’t speak the same language you do.

    Bonne chance, mon ami!

  44. stinerman says:


    I didn’t know people could live on soap and cheerios.

  45. RvLeshrac says:


    If you think Dell and HP have bad CUSTOMER service, you should have to deal with their SERVICE PROVIDER service. At least Dell will sell the customer a part, and HP will send a customer the right recovery discs, and ALL of the right recovery discs.

    Another great part about HP is that they provide a utility to write configuration/identification information into a new motherboard, necessary if you need to replace a motherboard and use the HP recovery discs, since the HP replacement boards aren’t pre-configured. HP provides that tool through their service website – only available after paying extraordinary amounts of money to HP. Unfortunately, even AFTER you’ve paid an extraordinary amount of money to HP, you still have to phone them up every single time you need an updated version of the tool for new boards, and walk through the same BS IVR as the customers.

    Sure, you feel upset when you’ve paid $1k for a new computer and have to walk through a phone tree – now imagine paying ten or twenty times that amount, and STILL having to walk through a phone tree – a phone tree that is ONLY available from 8 AM to 5 PM.


    Apple provides great support – if you buy AppleCare, and as long as you don’t have a REAL issue, such as the poor quality of their MacBook Pro and iPos screens.

    They’re quick to respond to an EECB, though, so I’ll give them that much.


    Not sure why the first bit even matters. I don’t care what the CSR I’m dealing with looks like or sounds like. I don’t care what their first language is. I don’t care what their sexual orientation is, their religion, race, or anything else – as long as they solve the problem and aren’t blaming me, I’m a happy customer.

    A person’s demeanor is often what it is. I hate it more when the CSR is forced to act contrary to their nature. I don’t even mind if they ask “I’m-really-trying-to-blame-you-without-sounding-like-it” questions at the beginning of the interaction, because I know just how many slimy twits are out there just jonesing for a free ride.

  46. MildredVole says:

    : I agree Dell Home can be
    the pits. Their computers and service have failed my customers countless
    times both on reliability and service. Very similar to HP except for HP’s
    pesky black hole.

    @legwork : On the other hand,
    Dell’s Small Business division is the best mass-market box seller out there.
    Better computers, knowledgeable support, and an escalation/tracking system
    that works. What I like best is their follow-up; When they say they’ll call,
    they mean it. It isn’t unusual to receive daily telephone and email
    contacts, even when the problem isn’t their fault. None of these big vendors
    are perfect, but in my experience these guys (& gals) do the best job.

    Just finished returning a workstation to Dell Business because of their
    atrocious customer service. Paid ~$2k for a smoking workstation, and they
    could not get the order right. 5+ hours in one day on customer support, they
    never returned calls, our “official sales rep” didn’t return e-mails for 3-4
    days and wouldn’t give his phone number until the issue was already
    escalated beyond him, and when I was transferred to someone new I always had
    to repeat the order number, my name and address, my phone number, the
    service tag number, the complaint number, etc. The only good I can say about
    the experience was that I never once couldn’t understand people. Otherwise,
    Dell representatives changed my order, Dell representatives misunderstood my
    order, and it took 4 weeks and dozens of e-mails for me finally to just give
    up and buy from a local company for $500 more, contrary to our corporate
    policy. I told the IT guys, if you want to buy the machine, go ahead,
    otherwise, don’t complain. When they heard the details and saw my e-mail
    logs, they backed off. Our company will avoid Dell in the future.

  47. guilliam says:

    Dell is a NIGHTMARE!!! Recently purchased a laptop and the hard drive crashed 2 days after it arrived. Purchased the at home warranty, but they expected me to replace it myself!! I finally spoke with a call center from Canada who I told that either they send me a new laptop, or I would return for a refund. I was on the phone over 8 hours total with Dell and was fed up!! They sent me a new laptop with prepaid return label for the old one.

  48. parnote says:

    @tysonburnsred: LMAO … my guess would be that the voice recognition program is being ran on a computer using Windows as it operating system.

  49. Another vote for Apple, here.

    I just returned home from a three-week trip outside the country; during the trip, the battery on my year-old MacBook Pro began to fail. The “year-old” part is significant, because the warranty ran out while I was traveling; being on a cruise ship with a very high per-minute phone charge, I decided to wait to call tech support until I returned home.

    Being a hard-of-hearing person, phone trees are almost impossible to negotiate. I generally just press random buttons until I get a human, then ask to be connected.

    But with my call to Apple, I spoke to a human being at once. Sadly, my first CS rep verified that my battery was out of warranty and that I didn’t qualify for any of the extended battery replacement programs.

    I asked for a supervisor, and explained the problem. Noted that the battery was just a few days out of warranty, that I hadn’t been in a position to call earlier, and that similar problems were being treated to a two-year replacement policy on other MacBook Pro models.

    The supervisor asked to call me back after he did some research–and honestly, I thought I was getting the brush-off. As I was preparing the documents to start a claim under my extended warranty (through the credit card), the phone rang.

    Given the circumstances, Apple decided to give me a new battery as a courtesy. It arrived 48 hours later and is running the computer at this writing.

    It’s not just the fanboys who love this company. Apple, you ROCK.

  50. ghost77 says:

    My favorite (sarcasm) phone tree action is the one where the company forces you to enter an account number before reaching a “customer service representative”, only then to have the CSR ask for your account number again.

    The standard answer to that question is, “I already entered it.” This usually gets a few grumbles from the CSR… but for me, it’s just a way to get someone else to share in my phone tree misery a little bit.

    Another favorite phone tree of mine is TD Banknorth, where the system literally asks you the same question 3 different times, using slightly different terminology each time:

    “For existing deposit account information, press 1”


    “For Checking, money market, […], press 1”


    “For information on your checking […], press 1”


    Good times.

  51. sonneillon says:

    I mash buttons until I get a real person then make them transfer me to the appropriate department. Of course at my work transferring a customer involves me yelling out pick up line 1.

  52. Amy Alkon000 says:

    Bohemian writes:

    The voice recognition stuff is even worse. Like I want to start saying random words out loud while out in public.

    Oh, so you’re one of those people shouting their problem into their phone in cafes? Why should anyone else have to participate in your getting your broken refrigerator, or whatever, fixed? Could we please just read the paper in peace?

  53. Amy Alkon000 says:

    @RvLeshrac: Apple provides great support – if you buy AppleCare, and as long as you don’t have a REAL issue, such as the poor quality of their MacBook Pro and iPos screens.

    You get AppleCare free for 90 days — with the same quality of service as people who pay for it. And you can choose to extend it by paying for AppleCare for three years…if you wish. If not, well, you take your chances.

    I’ve had Macs since 1985, and that one I got back then is still working (my friends’ kid plays on it in Italy). AppleCare has saved my butt countless times, and they’re great and very helpful, and the one time I had a problem, I asked for a “Frontline technician” (I think that’s what I said — or maybe a supervisor) and they overrode the first technician’s assessment pronto.

  54. Buran says:

    @Amy Alkon: Where did you get “in a cafe” from that statement?

  55. geoffhazel says:

    My father-in-law has a rotary dial phone. Well, he acts like he does, anyway. Gets him to a human faster.

    and why do I have to “press 1 for english” ?? Can’t that just be the default?

  56. Amy Alkon000 says:

    saying random words out loud while out in public

    Maybe you’re shouting into your phone while in Staples or in the grocery store?

    The above statement you made suggests you conduct your complaint conversations with these companies while in the presence of a number of other people.

    Or has the meaning of “public” changed since yesterday evening?

  57. paxman356 says:

    I work for a human backed IVR company. That’s right, humans sitting at computers interpreting what you say and giving you the appropriate (9 out of ten, at least) action.

    Say you are calling your phone company, and you need a repair. You say, “repair” or “my phone isn’t working” and you get put into a repair tree, and asked specifics about your phone problem. Once the specifics are out of the way, you are either given instructions on tests you can do yourself (free) before a repairman comes out (not free).

    It can be funny when the wrong person gets stuck in the wrong tree. We hear it all. We get acid laced F bomb laden tirades, to confused little old ladies.

    But it’s a fun system to work.

  58. smint says:

    I work at a Teleperformance center for Verizon, and I’ve had people tell me it took them 20 to 45 minutes to get through to me when there was zero hold time to get to my department.

  59. littlealbatross says:

    @ghost77: I used to work tech support and billing for a phone company and we felt your pain when it came to the IVR. When they rolled out the “input your account number” feature in the IVR they didn’t test it very well, I guess, so we rarely got the account number or it was truncated or whatever. I’m sure it’s amazingly frustrating for a customer to have to give that information again, but it was just as frustrating for us not to have it and get yelled at about it multiple times a day. If we could’ve changed the IVR, we would’ve, trust me.

  60. JustThatGuy3 says:

    @homerjay: How about this – get off the phone while you’re in the car. You’re a danger to yourself, your kids, and anybody else unfortunate enough to be on the road with you.

  61. RedSonSuperDave says:

    Wow, there’s people that get to hear the all the cruel, brutal, and disgusting stuff I say to Microsoft Bob? That’s frightening and funny at the same time. I hope somebody got a good laugh out of it.

  62. battra92 says:

    Verizon has TERRIBLE customer service but, at least in my experience, the linemen are pretty competent and will work with you.

    Apple was great, both on the phone and at the Apple Store. They replaced my MacBook battery 1.5 years after I bought the laptop for free because it was from a defective lot.

    My company also has the rotary-dial option to get to a receptionist to break from the tree. Granted, we don’t have 10 billion people calling a day but we do have a CS staff on-site who knows what they are doing.

  63. Starfury says:

    I hate phone trees. The worst I’ve ever had to deal with was Virgin Mobile; I’d decided that the pre-paid phone was costing more more per month than a standard plan so I wanted to cancel. It took me TWENTY MINUTES to finally get the stupid phone tree to connect me to a person…then I got the hard sell about keeping the account.

    A note: I had to call ING Direct to ask about their CD accounts and got a person after 2 rings. I was so surprised it took me a few moments to respond to the CSR.

  64. dwarf74 says:

    Our billing department got a phone tree not too long ago. On the positive side, the very first question is…

    “Press 1 for a representative. Press 2 to go through our automated system.”

  65. elforesto says:

    I *heart* USAA for letting me talk to a person in under 30 seconds. Cox Communications was almost as good; most hold times when I lived in Las Vegas were under 5 minutes.

    The company I work for has a large call center for tech support and we make it a goal to keep the average hold under 5 minutes. For the last month or so, we’ve had it down to under 2 minutes to get to a tech. We’ve long realized that a good call center means more support contract renewals, more product sales and a better revenue stream. Too bad a lot of other companies haven’t figured out that support, techincal or otherwise, is much more than a cost center.

  66. darkryd says:

    When I run across an Automated Voice System, I just start saying, “Agent” over and over until the system gets the point and sends me to a real human being.

  67. Apple phone reps are perhaps the best in the business. I guess that’s where the extra money you paid for that Macbook Pro goes to, and I’m glad. I noticed some companies are starting to understand the concept of good customer service. Last time I called Chase and Time Warner Cable I had to fight less through phone trees.

  68. If any company reads the article, the moral is, the money you spend in marketing is better off in customer service. You’ll get more customers through good word of mouth than annoying advertising.

  69. Invalid_User_Name says:

    “Citibank when you activate any of their cards requires you to call them so “Phil” in India can sell you “Identity Theft Protection.”

    Yes…..and do you know why they want you to “activate” your card on your home phone number? So their CallerID system can activate it and forever associate that phone number with your name. These credit card companies use products from companies like Axciom to trace your every electronic move.

    Read this and never call ANY 800 phone number from your home number again:


  70. ClevelandCub says:

    In my current job we support the telephone systems and back end computer integration for a large number of call centers for a big company (not outsourced, btw). Part of our responsibilties include helpdesk type support for our (US based) outsourced IVRs. Any specific customer complaints are researched (couldn’t authenticate account information, etc), because we want to make them as user friendly as they can be. Plus at around 1 million calls a day we want as many customers as possible to successfully complete their calls inside the IVR.

    Having said that, if you really want to talk to a live person for just about every application that is out there if you say “Representative” or press zero at any point it will take you out of the IVR and send you to an agent. The only time this is not true is if the area you would be transferred to is closed, or you are using one of the one or two applications that do not have agents to service them. But those applications are targeted to very specific groups, and they know ahead of time that they would have to call another number for a representative.

    As far as having to repeat your account number to the agent after you’ve entered it into the IVR – that’s really poor customer service. My company ensures that on most of our applications (for about 98% of our callers that opt out to an agent) you don’t have to repeat this information. This is the advantage of CTI (Computer Telephony Integration). It allows us to pass the infomration that has already been collected by the IVR and send it to the agent. In our case the agent will ask a security question or two and continue to assist. All of this is assuming you authenticated in the IVR of course. ;-).

  71. ClevelandCub says:


    I wouldn’t need the products from Acxiom to do that. You could use an existing customer database and pull the ANI (caller ID) from the inbound call and update the database. Of course you have to assume that they are really calling from home or your screw up your database. If your authorizing/activating a card you could compare the ANI to the number you have on file and refuse to activate the card I suppose, but that just reeks of bad customer service to me.

    Most banks and credit card companies want your home phone number as a part of doing business, so – for banks anyway this falls under the revised requirements set forth in the anti-terrorism legislation that came in wake of 9/11. I believe it was a part of the Patriot Act, but I won’t swear to it.

    I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be scared of, they have it already. But I will admit that I’m a little jaded when it comes to telephony technology, so maybe I’m missing your point?

  72. Mr. Gunn says:

    I think companies just don’t know how to cost it out, so they just try to minimize spending on it. If someone came around and gave the sort of fuzzy math/motivational speech about inbound customer service that they used to convince companies to install data centers and build out websites, things would probably improve, but I guess the sales angle just isn’t there.