By CLINT SWETT
March 27, 2006
But when dialing her card issuer, she found herself laboriously punching through an interminable series of phone menus. Frustrated, she finally hung up, unable to reach a customer-service agent.
"They want us to tell them if we are going to be using the card (overseas)," said Kuehner, a Sacramento, Calif., retiree. "But I couldn't figure out any way to talk to a live person."
In today's automated world, it's often impossible to find a human on the other end of a customer-service line. And for customers like Kuehner, navigating phone-menu systems can seem like a trip into a Kafka novel. It's often byzantine, occasionally darkly humorous, but almost always frustrating.
As a growing number of firms - from cable TV companies to department stores - rely on automated voice systems to handle more customer calls, there's been a corresponding chorus of complaints by consumers: How do I reach a human?
That lament has become so common that one Web site now offers shortcuts to bypass phone menus at hundreds of companies to more quickly reach a living, breathing human. The site, www.gethuman.com/us, launched by Boston-area technology entrepreneur Paul English, posts tips on getting through to more than 400 frequently called companies, from AAA to Wells Fargo.
For businesses, using an automated phone system is a simple dollar-and-cents calculation. By most estimates, it's about 10 times cheaper to handle a call with an automated phone system than it is with a live employee.
But increasingly, experts say companies need to balance the cost savings against the ill will created among their customers by a trip into phone frustration.
"The cost of an automated system is cheaper than having a live person pick up the call on the first ring," said Elaine Berke, who owns EBI Consulting in Westport, Mass., and advises businesses on customer-service issues.
"But if you have angry customers who are alienated," she said, the price can be even higher. "It costs a lot more to get a new customer than to keep one."
That's a challenge that many companies face. Given the huge cost advantage of interactive voice-response systems, it's unlikely that firms will abandon the technology, said Bern Elliot, an analyst with Gartner Inc.
Instead, he said, companies need to fine-tune their systems to meet customer needs and expectations.
For instance, few people complain if they call a movie theater and get an automated recording of movies and show times.
But make a customer with a cable TV complaint listen to nine menu choices and you could lose business faster than the time it takes to slam down the phone.
At SureWest Communications, most customers must punch three buttons before being connected to a live operator, said Gary Neiman, who oversees the Roseville, Calif.-based company's call-center operations.
He said that's the best way to route a customer to the right specialist - whether for help with Internet problems, cable TV questions or billing information.
Customers who don't respond to the menu choices automatically will be routed to an agent, he said.
SureWest rates its agents on how well they respond to customers. But the phone-menu system itself also gets a hard look.
"Our emphasis is on customer service," he said. "Having a five-layer-deep phone tree wouldn't send that message."
Vision Service Plan, based in Rancho Cordova, Calif., also uses extensive menu systems. Laura Costa, VSP's vice president for customer service, contends many of the eye-care company's clients find it useful.
Both doctors and patients can access automated information on their terms of coverage, for instance. "We try to have automation for people who want it," she said.
But VSP callers who need a live operator usually can get through in three or four punches, she said. "It isn't a nine-button ordeal and then maybe you get a live person," she said.
While an estimated 50 percent of call centers now use extensive voice-response systems, according to Gartner Inc.'s research, some companies are moving in the opposite direction.
Integra Telecom Inc., a Portland, Ore.-based business telecommunications provider, answers all customer calls with a live person, said John Nee, the company's vice president of marketing.
"To lose a customer and replace it is very expensive," Nee said. "The investment we make in having a live person pays for itself in the long term."
Even financial-services giant Citigroup Inc. is getting into the act.
The company recently began running a humorous TV commercial showing a customer's travails with a voice-response menu. While in a crowded commuter train, the customer is forced to shout his password - "big boy" - into his cell phone.
The ad promotes Citi's Simplicity credit card, which promises an easier way to talk to a customer-service agent, said Ed Eger, executive vice president of Citi's card business. After punching in an account number, cardholders are given the option of pressing zero to speak directly with an agent.
Eger said the program - inspired by customer surveys - increases the company's costs, "but if we provide a higher level of service, more people will commit their business to us," he said.
Other online retailers are resorting to the reverse: calling the customer instead of vice versa. Online retailer Amazon.com now offers a service where customers with a problem can enter their phone number in the "help" section on Amazon's Web site. The customer can choose to be called back immediately or in five, 10 or 15 minutes. Sears.com and Hermes.com are offering similar services.
Despite efforts to improve customer service, phone-menu systems aren't likely to disappear anytime soon. Nor will consumer complaints. That's why experts say smart companies will make their phone menus more customer-friendly.
"We tell our clients that they always should give their customers the option of talking to a real person at any time," said Karen Leland, a San Francisco-based consultant and co-author of "Customer Service for Dummies."
Otherwise, "you give customers the message that you don't want to talk to them."
Or in the case of Shari Postag, perhaps it's giving the message that you don't know how to listen. After dialing a parcel-delivery company recently and getting stuck in a maze of automated messages, the Sacramento woman muttered a crude term for excrement. The automated voice instantly responded: "International shipping or domestic shipping?"
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Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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