Dealing with voice systems

Activist finds ways to reach a human on the telephone

December 27, 2005|By THE BOSTON GLOBE

The frustration is all too familiar: Call a company's customer service line, and chances are you'll have a hard time reaching a human.

Paul English of Arlington, Mass., got tired of dealing with computerized voice systems and decided there was only one way around it: He would put together a cheat sheet.

It started small, with the 10 companies that frustrated him the most.

But the list started growing after the 42-year-old software engineer posted it on his personal Web site ( earlier this year and invited readers to make their own contributions. He now has tips for quickly reaching a person at more than 100 companies.

Want a Visa representative? Press 0 several times, ignoring the automated voice telling you that it's an invalid entry. How about a Delta Air Lines human? Say "agent" twice. At Sprint/Nextel, press 0 five times.

"I hope companies eventually respond with `Oh my God, I didn't realize how painful we made it for people,'" English said.

Don't count on it. The widespread proliferation of automated customer service systems is part of a profound change in the way American businesses deal with customers.

A lot of attention has been focused on how consumers end up speaking to call centers in India or other countries when they phone for help. But Gartner Inc., a market research firm in San Francisco, said many companies are bypassing call centers altogether by asking their customers to serve themselves with the help of technology.

Self-service activities range from customers scanning and bagging their own groceries to consumers using automated voice systems or Web sites to purchase tickets, submit insurance claims, manage bank accounts, or adjust financial portfolios.

By 2010, Gartner says, self-service will account for 58 percent of all service interactions, up from 35 percent today.

The reason is cost. Richard Shapiro, president of the Center for Client Retention in Springfield, N.J., estimates an automated customer service system can handle a query at a cost of 8 to 15 cents a minute. The same query handled by a customer service representative in India or the Philippines would cost 20 to 40 cents a minute, and 65 cents to $1 a minute if handled by a U.S. agent.

Cost is not the only advantage that automated systems enjoy. They often improve customer service by delivering information quickly and around the clock. They can also reduce wait times for human customer service agents and let those agents focus on more difficult problems.

Yet many consumers, particularly older ones, don't like talking to computers. Shapiro estimates that 40 percent of the people who call a company's toll-free number immediately dial 0 looking for a live person.

Many companies have responded by taking away the option to dial 0 and making it harder to reach a human.

Sovereign Bank, one of the companies on English's cheat sheet, said it doesn't make sense for the bank to offer the option of dialing 0. Bank officials say it's more efficient to have customers input their own personal data rather than have an agent take it down.

English's cheat sheet is unlikely to undermine the push toward automation, even though references to his list are spreading on the Web.

But English said companies should adopt a universal standard for reaching a human, preferably by dialing 0. And, he said, companies should be wary of putting too much distance between them and their customers.

His company,, a travel search engine, for example, requires all software engineers, including English, to respond directly to customer e-mail.

"It's shocking how much consumers slap us back into reality," he said. "Big companies often can't do that. They're all about cost control."

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