Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Customer Service Lines

The advent of automated phone menus with voice recognition was no doubt intended to make life easier for the busy, coffee-and-cell-phone-juggling modern individual. When callers can speak their choices, they no longer have to pull the phone away from their head, look at the numbers, and select one, possibly missing the beginning of the next menu in the process, but can simply stay with handset jammed between ear and shoulder, barking "One. Three. One. One" into their phones until they arrive at the desired information. Even better, they can say things like "account balance," "transfer funds," or their account number/Social Security number/insurance member number/mother's maiden name, all while interacting with progressively more human-sounding prompts, making the entire experience more relevant and less frustrating. Right? Right? Not exactly.

First of all, there is the problem that artificial speech recognition still leaves a lot to be desired. I try to enunciate, which only seems to make the problem worse. "Did you mean 'apply for a mortgage'?" No! I meant "customer service." (Why would I apply for a mortgage on the phone?) I always end up interrupting it to correct it, which throws it into even more chaos, or I end up spelling my name in clipped letters (which it also doesn't like), or I end up screaming, "Customer service, you freak!" into the phone. ("I'm sorry, I didn't quite get that. For your account balance, please press one or say 'account balances'...") Then there are the ones that just ask, "What would you like me to help you with today?" leaving you to scramble, trying to figure out in the space of a second and a half how sophisticated its language processing skills are and what is an effective keyword for what you want to do. Whatever I pick always seems to stymie these, but they also seem to be the ones most likely to just say, "I'm sorry, I didn't quite get that. Please hold for customer service." Yes!

Secondly, phone menus are always horribly arranged. One never knows where the option one is looking for lurks and is so required to listen through each list carefully to ensure a better-sounding option doesn't come along. They also never quite seem to have the option I seek. Phone options for banks, insurance companies, and the like are always really simple things that are much better done online. If I wanted to transfer funds, select a primary care physician, enroll in Keep the Change, or view my statement, I would do it online in about the time it takes to dial the number and select a first-menu-level option. The only reason I call customer service lines is when I need to do something that is not available online or when I have a weird question or unique situation that actually requires speaking to a person. In the past two years (calling publishers from the bookstore excluded), I have never called a customer service line when what I needed to do was ever one of the given options. Imagine, I'm calling customer service when I actually need service. Inconceivable. (They should start having one line for automated banking—account balances, due dates, check cancellation, reporting cards stolen, whatever—and one for actual issues.) So I sit there chanting "customer service, customer service, customer service" until they catch on. I'm told that cursing moves you up in the queue as well, but I'm also afraid that it will trigger a little warning light to inform the customer service rep of a belligerent customer, so I don't generally do that.

I'm sure having the menu be recited by a more natural-sounding voice is meant to be reassuring, but it's not really. Maybe it even raises expectations for what it should be able to do. It's just human enough to let you down but not human enough that you feel the need to be polite. I never end up screaming, "I said tax forms, you moron!" at a real person. I think dealing with a customer service robot while waiting to talk to a real person (especially when it refers to itself in the first person) probably raises your blood pressure and makes you more likely to be rude to whoever does actually (finally) answer your call. Someone should do a study.

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