Someone Is Listening To You Swear At The Customer Service Robot

The New York Times recently published an article about those interactive voice response systems that we all hate so much, and in it we were introduced to Walter Rolandi. He designs these systems and it’s his great privilege to be able to listen to you swearing at them.

From the New York Times:

Walter Rolandi is founder of the Voice User Interface Company, which designs and assesses interactive voice response systems for companies. As part of his job, he hears how people use the systems.

“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.”

So the next time you’re stuck in an endless “press 2, press 3, press 4, say your name” hell, be sure to say “hi” to Walter.. just in case.

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


Edit Your Comment

  1. javi0084 says:

    I’m going to give him an earful next time…

  2. I always wondered if they were listening. Tinfoil hat – activate!

  3. drunxor says:

    i just hit 0 till i get a real person!

  4. dearabby says:

    I read somewhere that some of these systems look out for those words and will get you to a CSR (on those with voice recognition, not push button)…When calling one of the airlight flight arrivals, it happened to me – guess they don’t have a flight out of “f-bomb”!

  5. WarOtter - I went to Japan and all I got was this tumor. says:

    It’s too bad you can’t speak a SQL injection or something into these systems, if only to make the automated systems make the sound of pain. I think we’ve all dreamed of slowly crushing these machines while hearing “What are you doing Dave?”

  6. AngryEwok says:

    A few obscenities instead of numbers bashing and often times you get transferred straight to a human. I do it all the time.

  7. WarOtter - I went to Japan and all I got was this tumor. says:

    @dearabby: No, they just all have complimentary trips to hell.

  8. keith4298 says:

    Last time that happened with Cablevision, I just kept saying that if they offered me a $50 reduction in the bill, I’ll keep them, otherwise I’m gonna switch to Verizon.

    Figured if they were listening in, maybe it could cut down on the wait time. Either way, it’s not like I was gonna be doing anything better while waiting on hold (and playing brickbreaker on my blackberry).

    Oh, and they DID give me $50 off, so who knows…

  9. dtmoore says:

    whenever I call mediacom I just start cussing up a storm and get right through, get some weird looks from my girlfriend though :D

  10. NightSteel says:

    I wonder if he listened to me the last time I used Charter’s automated troubleshooter. The one that makes you wait 5 minutes for your modem to retrain and tells you to say ‘okay’ when it does, you have no option to bypass that step, and if you make any noise at all other than saying ‘okay’, it resets the five minute timer. That one made me want to swear like Stallone in Demolition Man when he needed toilet paper.

  11. IphtashuFitz says:

    Some companies do in fact listen to what goes on when you’re on hold, etc. They don’t do it in real time but analyze it after the fact so they can get some insight into their customers.

  12. opsomath says:

    The original article’s good…it’s about how companies are not really saving money by using those DAMN auto-systems.

  13. Buran says:

    @NightSteel: Is there a way around that damn thing, period? I should check

  14. bleh says:

    I swear at these systems all the time.

    When the software can’t tell the difference between words like “yes” and “no” or “one” and “seven” then it deserves a good cuss.

  15. theblackdog says:

    @WarOtter: Oh that could be hilarious…

    System: For service in English, say English
    Person: DROP TABLE Customer_Accounts, Commit!

    System: For service in English, say English
    Person: UPDATE Customer_Charges, SET Bill_Amount = Zero, WHERE Account_Number is , Commit!

    I could have fun with that.

  16. theblackdog says:

    @WarOtter: Someone reminded me of this:

    If the picture doesn’t work:


  17. smallestmills says:

    One time I walked in the apt. to hear my boyfriend talking in a sexy voice on the telephone saying things like “Yes” and “Ooh yeah, I want you to schedule a pickup” Turns out he likes to talk dirty to the machines. He’s kind of got a thing for robots.

  18. @IphtashuFitz: I always fear that when the rep puts me on hold, it’s just a mute key, and they can hear me w/o the hold music. That’s why I never admit to anything while on hold.

  19. satoru says:

    @Git Em SteveDave: That’s pretty much what they do actually. They might be trying to reach someone, or just looking up some information on their computers, but they can definitely still hear you. They’re also probably swearing at you while you swearing at them :)

  20. bravo369 says:

    i hate automated systems. If it’s longer than 2 levels then it’s too long. Also, stop asking if I want another language…give another number for spanish to call.

    I used to have to call cingular alot and it always bugged me that i had to input my phone number and account number only to finally get to someone who asked for that same info again. what was the point of putting it into the phone then?

  21. Oh dear, I have said some awful, disgusting things to those robots. Walter may have had to take a shower after the obscene things I said.

  22. catcherintheeye says:

    @WarOtter: Definitely thought of the xkcd cartoon “exploits of a mom”

  23. catcherintheeye says:

    @theblackdog: Ha! beat me to it

  24. rasbill says:

    i hate calling at&t customer service they always have to tell you there current special really slow before telling u any options to get thru to anyone

  25. avconsumer says:

    @CaptainSemantics: “…and it always bugged me that i had to input my phone number and account number only to finally get to someone who asked for that same info again.”

    THIS makes me super crazy. I… just… gave it to your “computer system”!!! And gawdammit don’t say “for security purposes,” because the chances of a criminal breaking into my house between the time I first entered my account information, coaxing the phone out of my cold dead hand, and continuing to hold, with the intent of meddling with my cellular account info….

    I can hear the poor bastard now… “dammit!! I didn’t think she’d ask for his account info…. again!!!” Busted!

  26. arras says:

    I feel bad for walter…I say some pretty nasty things to those robot voice systems. They actually enrage me further, I’d love to see them done away with and maybe Walter can work on something that doesn’t raise everyone’s blood pressure.

    Maybe a robot phone sex service?

  27. Charybdis says:

    @Git Em SteveDave: When I called AT&T about a website issue the specialist I talked to actually told me she would be able to hear me if I had any questions while I was holding – meaning she put me on mute instead of hold. I was rather surprised she would admit that, but then she wasn’t a front-line CSR so she was a lot friendlier and more helpful.

  28. Wreckoner says:

    The other day, I wanted to call the IRS to make sure that the money I sent them went through and to see if my difference from the stimulus is coming back to me. I wasted 45 minutes of my one hour lunch break on the phone with a machine. I had to enter my birthday, mother’s maiden name, SS number, tax pin number…all about twice each. I never even got through to anyone, it just had me on hold for another ten minutes. I cursed a mad stream and hung up.

  29. If there is actually some automation to detect use of curse words, I would beg Valve to start using it in Team Fortress 2, so that the game could automatically mute the dumb shits that troll the game yelling n@$$#r, f%g, etc. Save me the trouble.

  30. thesabre says:

    I despise those voice recognition menus; however, I don’t really mind the keypad entry ones. So, whenever a company tells me to say something, I just remain silent. Sometimes, it will repeat the command, but more often than not it will switch over to keypad entry. I guess they think you’re a mute and decide to cater to your needs or something. Either way, it’s more convenient because I’m sick of these things not being accurate.

    It’s like:
    Menu: “Please say ‘account information’, ‘technical support’, or ‘sales’.
    Me: Technical Support
    Menu: You said, ‘sales’. Is this correct? Say yes or no.
    Me: No
    Menu: Thank you. We are transferring your call to the sales department.


  31. PeteRR says:

    I’ll listen and push buttons to weave through menus all day long, but I don’t want to “speak” to an F’ing machine to get where I’m going. Mostly because I can note which number I should pick while listening to all of the options, but remembering the right combination of words for the correct option while listening to all of the options is impossible.

  32. VA_White says:

    I always say something unintelligible like “mmmwwwah!!” After it tells me “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that” a few times, it usually transfers me to a person.

  33. RedSonSuperDave says:

    I’ve said some cruel and brutal things to those systems, and I must say that it does my heart good to know that a human got to hear what I had to say.

    Having to tell that idiotic computer at 18004MYXBOX what I’m calling about for the tenth time, all the while knowing that I’m just gonna have to repeat myself once I finally get to a human (supposing I have the good luck to get a human whom I can understand) really brings out the worst in me.

  34. Canoehead says:

    Of course with Comcast, the swearing really only gets rolling when you speak to a Rep.

  35. witeowl says:

    I think I have to give this guy (or similar) and Charter credit. If I’m not mistaken, they’ve got something now which will detect and react to sighs and timbre of voice, not just volume (which I’ve learned will often get me to a human being). Here’s how it went.

    *Computer (after various pointless steps that I’ve already gone through because I’ve had similar problems before): I’m going to ask you to unplug your modem; are you comfortable with that? Please answer ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘what’s a modem’.

    * Me (frustrated but resigned): Yeeessssss….

    * Computer: Have you done this already today?

    * Me: (surprised at this new question) Yes.

    * Computer: I’m very sorry that we’re repeating steps you took earlier, but I am going to need you to unplug your modem again.

    Yes, I know it was calculated manipulation by a computer, but it somehow made me feel better regardless. Go figure.

    Footnote: I was ultimately happier with the stupid computer than the idiot who later “helped” me by pretending to schedule a service appointment. (When the problem resolved itself – interestingly enough – I called to cancel, only to find out that there was no appointment. Moron.

  36. Empire says:

    @theblackdog: Good thing it’s my last day, or all that laughter would have gotten me fired.

  37. dragonfire81 says:

    That trophy pic is hilarious, I know a few people who could use one of those.

    I hate how some companies are trying to give their automated systems “personality”. Take for example, the hip female “Simone” bot used by Virgin mobile.

    I don’t know why but I’d rather have a robot, trying to make me feel like I’m actually talking to someone drives me crazy.

  38. Mike8813 says:

    @moose_knuckle: Amen. Or if it’s a voice activated system and “0” isn’t working, I just say “Customer Service” until I can get a CSR. Besides, it’s not like all of that account information you’re typing or saying is gonna carry over to your conversation… You’ll have to repeat everything over again anyway.

    CSR: Hello, how can I help you?
    You: (Insert problem here)
    CSR: Okay, can you give me your account number? Full name? Mailing address? 4 digit pin? Mother’s maiden name? Shoe size?


  39. johnva says:

    @Mike8813: Whenever I call Comcast I end up getting transferred between 2-3 different CSRs, each of whom make go through all that same stuff. Seriously, can’t these companies figure out some way to have their phone systems pass this information to the reps?

  40. mungojerry says:

    The only plus I find with the automated system is when asked for an account number or social security number, you can speed speak it and the system always understands it. I like to see how fast I can blurt out my social, just like the voice at the end of the sleezy auto leasing ads that reads the ‘fine print’ at 100 words per minute. Try doing *that* with a human CSR!

  41. johnva says:

    @mungojerry: That’s funny, whenever I speak anything to those voice recognition systems, it gets it wrong 90% of the time. Maybe they have more trouble with certain people’s voices or accents.

  42. Micromegas says:

    Here’s something I’ve never understood about these automated systems.

    A few days ago I had to call my electric company to inform them that I would be moving. After going through a menu with about six or seven steps and having to state my old and new addresses so the computer could record it, I was then told something along the lines of “Thank you, we will now transfer you to a live operator to confirm your request,” and when the person on the other end finally picked up, I had to explain my situation all over again and repeat all of my information.

    What’s the point of these systems if they don’t provide any of the information they collect to the employees that we talk to?

  43. Me - now with more humidity says:

    I’ve found that screaming “connect me to an agent you stupid bitch!!!” several times gets me to a human.

  44. shortergirl06 says:

    My Grandfather always had a hard time with these systems. He had a laryngectomy, and had to use a buzzer like device to speak, although it was monotone. He was fairly easy to understand, even over the phone.

    However, one of his supplemental insurance companies required him to file claims over the phone using this automated system. It never understood him. I guess there’s something about a robot sounding person talking to a robot that just messes everything up.

    The real kicker is that the system wouldn’t hand him over to a human, it would just say “Please speak your first and last name”, over and over again. We tried to talk to the company to get a number that went to a human, but no dice. There was only the computer. That’s the only way that it could be done. Couldn’t someone do it for him? (He liked his independence, and we liked to keep it that way)

    I still don’t like them, just because I saw how deflated my grandpa looked after we told him that he couldn’t file his own insurance claims.

  45. witeowl says:

    @shortergirl06: I’d write/call upper level morons at the insurance company, define the phrase “universal access”, and mention the ADA a few times.

  46. shortergirl06 says:

    @witeowl: We did. Their reply was to have his guardian do it for him, since that was legal. And of course that was me.

    Of course, that was 3 years ago. It did give me an excuse to go over there and listen to his stories. It’s just frustrating that he had to rely on me for something so simple.

    Maybe he could have done the SQL Injection better than a human :)

  47. witeowl says:

    @shortergirl06: That’s ludicrous! That’s the equivalent of refusing a service dog because someone else can come in and help the person with a disability!

    On top of your frustrations, as you mentioned, that’s horribly deameaning to him.

    Bastages. :(

  48. huntsterUNC says:

    When I run into those automated voice things I generally start saying random cuss words and say things like “pissed off” and “angry” and “mad.”

    Most of the time, it almost instantly xfers me to a CSR. Or so it seems.

  49. Pfluffy says:

    Love the 3 tenors photo. Sing those cuss words for good old Walter.

  50. xirian says:

    @avconsumer: I’m always surprised when I call XM, because its the only company I’ve every called where I didn’t have to input any information, and they know my name when they answer based on my phone number. Why can’t other companies get this?

  51. Buran says:

    @xirian: Don’t use XM, but LL Bean does that. It’s really nice.

  52. FLConsumer says:

    I’ll still take a DTMF (touch-tone) phone tree over one of those voice-recognition systems any day.

  53. freejazz38 says:

    Please, the companies don’t give a crap. That’s why they have these useless systems in the first place. WELCOME TO CORPORATE AMERICA! THE RUINATION OF THE COUNTRY. Next time you see a CEO driving by in his Mercedes, Key it.

  54. what i did a few times to an automated system and outsourced center. is instead of saying the digits one by one I would combine them. I would say five thousand three hundred twenty two rather them 5 3 2 2. Makes me feel better confusing the rep when I had to wait for so long to get a human

  55. Amelie says:

    My favorite thing to do to the maddening Northwest Airlines system, is to talk gibberish. After the third nonsense reply, she says, “I think you need to talk to a representative.”

  56. Pink Puppet says:

    I’ve gotten to the point where I serenade the darn things. It’s more polite than swearing, and I feel no more silly than if I seriously made the attempt to communicate with it.

    What works, works, you know?

  57. ottawa_guy says:

    Always have that problem with the automated systems.

    I hate Bell Canada’s system the worst.
    “Thank you for calling Bell Canada, to continue in English please stay on the line, to continue in French, say French”

    Me: Background noise gets into the headset

    “Merci pour choisi Bell Canada…mon non est Emilie… sil vous plait…. etc”



    “Thank you for calling Bell Canada, to continue in English please stay on the line, to continue in French, say French”

    “This is Emily, your automated assistant…please say what you are calling about”

    Me: Pay my bill.

    “I believe you are calling regarding telephone repair service, if that is correct please say yes.”

    Me: No.

    “Welcome back to the main menu.”

    Me: I want to pay my f^%$*ng god-^%&# bill!

    “Ok, let me transfer you to our automated payment system”.

    Me: Good grief, another system!

  58. XianZomby says:

    I have been suspicious of this since call trees hacve existed. When I’m on the phone waiting, I’m cursing up a storm. And always in my mind “can they hear me.” Now I know they can. And I’m going to keep cursing. And if that guy is listening, I’m gonna pass him some messages.

  59. godlyfrog says:

    @witeowl: I hate to admit it, since I hate that Charter system, but it’s actually pretty advanced. It has the capability to check the uptime on your modem and check the settings on your modem to see if it’s working right. It can also tell if you’ve called a few times, because if you hang up a couple of times during it, you get transferred right to a tech on the next call.

  60. chartrule says:

    with bell canada’s system say “live person” and it will connect you with a live person – takes a few times saying it to confuse the system though

  61. MayorBee says:

    Automated System: Please say your name.
    Larry Valentine: Larry Valentine

    AS: You said “Barry Schmalentine”
    LV: Schmalentine?

    AS: You said “Schmalentine”
    LV: I was enunciating

    AS: You said “I was enunciating”

    AS: You said “WHOOOOO!”

    That was one of the best parts of I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

  62. rlee says:

    @dragonfire81: God, yes! I’ve snarled about “Simone” here once or twice. Bless you for letting me know I’m not the only one.

  63. SoulOnFire says:

    I just had to register when I came across this.

    I used to work for a company that did something similar to this. We were hired by different companies to listen in and direct people’s calls by the commands they gave. Once a person gave a command, we would send them to the correct menu and they would bounce to the next “CSR”. If a person got mad and started cussing and asking for a CSR, we would simply hit the “Repeat” button which would repeat the commands and start the process all over.

    Delta Airlines and Newark Airport in New Jersey both have this system as well as a phone/internet company in the midwest whose name escapes me. I believe AOL also has the system in place these days.

  64. wildness says:

    I always say, “give me an f***ing human” just in case someone, somewhere is ever listening (live or on memorex).