If that's true, why not hire someone to answer the phone?
- Consuming Interests: How to break out of phone menu prison
- Fiber optics a boon, from classroom to operating room
- Help wanted: Looking for a few good social media pros
- Pictures: Tips to cut down your grocery bill
- 10 places (beside the newspaper) to find coupons
- How to stretch your paycheck
See more photos »
Businesses save money by replacing live representatives with automated systems or directing consumers to company websites. But this lack of human contact has caused a backlash. Websites have sprung up to reveal how consumers can reach a real person or bypass lengthy phone menus. And frustrated customers often air their grievances through social media — sometimes shaming companies into providing better service.
Molly Hildebrandt, for instance, took American Airlines to task on Twitter last week after being put on hold for 25 minutes — after the airline called her. "Not a happy camper. Hire more people AA," she tweeted.
Talking to a live person doesn't guarantee good service, of course, but it can make you feel better.
"It's frustrating for people when they are hitting those buttons," says Mark Kotkin, director of Consumer Reports' national research center. "They are paying good money for a service or product and many times they want to get someone to help with a problem."
And if you're like me, you want calls to be recorded so businesses can hear about the hoops we sometimes must go through.
"You'd like to think it's like a football game. They go over the tape and say, 'What could I have done better?' " says Adam Goldkamp, chief operations officer for GetHuman.com, a site that posts telephone numbers and other information for reaching a real person at 3,200 companies.
In reality, companies listen only to "a very small fraction" of calls, says Walt Tetschner, owner of Get2Human.com, which helps consumers get to a live representative at about 1,500 companies. "And your chance of being heard is not really good."
Automated systems are fine for simple inquiries. But for more complex questions, you likely want a real person.
One way to reach a live representative, experts say, is to interrupt the recitation of the telephone menu by pressing 0 or 0# or #0. Or don't punch any number, they say, and the system will assume you have a rotary dial phone and connect you to a representative.
If that doesn't work, try raising your voice or dropping an expletive when the system asks you to select an option, Goldkamp says. Some companies screen for tension in customers' voices and will route callers about to blow a fuse to the top.
But once you get a real person, be nice, Goldkamp says. Customer service representatives don't like being yelled at any more than you do, and they will likely try harder to help if you're courteous.
GetHuman also suggests asking for sales or account collections, where staffers seem to pick up the phone faster.
Or try fighting technology with technology from Fonolo.com, a Toronto-based site that helps you skip through phone menus for more than 500 North American companies.
"You can be on hold and go through these menu options for … sometimes 30 minutes," says Jason Bigue, co-founder of Fonolo. "It's crazy."
Fonolo allows you to review a company's phone menu and click on the option you want. Its computer then calls the business, listens to all the menu options and calls you when it gets to yours. The computer then connects you to the company — for free.
Or consider taking your complaints public through social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Some companies — recognizing that consumer complaints are bad for business — will reach out to aggrieved consumers who vent online. (Ironically, Goldkamp says, Facebook is often the subject of complaints because of the difficulty consumers have reaching a real person at the company.)
Jordy Leiser, co-founder of STELLAService, which rates online companies, says businesses shouldn't underestimate the impact of good customer service on the bottom line. Online shoe retailer Zappos grew to become a $1 billion company because of outstanding service, Leiser says.
STELLAService recently surveyed the fastest and slowest response times to emails and phone calls among top online retailers. Consumers can use the information to decide whether they should call or write a retailer, Leiser says.
Based on the findings, you're better off calling Crateandbarrel.com. You'll have to remain on hold for about four minutes. But that's faster than waiting 881/2 hours for an email response — the longest in the survey.
Fastest and slowest response times among the top 100 online retailers
Shortest time on hold:
SierraTradingPost.com — 6 seconds
YOOX.com —11 seconds
DisneyStore.com — 12 seconds
UrbanOutfitters.com —17 seconds
Grainger.com — 21 seconds
Longest time on hold:
BarnesandNoble.com — 8 minutes, 3 seconds
CSNStores.com — 7 minutes, 20 seconds
Macys.com — 7 minutes, 12 seconds
Zones.com — 6 minutes, 56 seconds
GreenMountainCoffee.com — 4 minutes, 50 seconds
Quickest email response:
OfficeDepot.com — 48 minutes
MusiciansFriend.com — 58 minutes, 40 seconds
Diapers.com — 1 hour, 23 minutes
DisneyStore.com — 1 hour, 47 minutes
Abercrombie.com — 1 hour, 50 minutes
Slowest email response:
Crateandbarrel.com — 88 hours, 30 minutes
Fingerhut.com — 79 hours, 29 minutes
Dell.com — 65 hours, 10 minutes
SwissColony.com — 52 hours, 29 minutes
MarketAmerica.com — 39 hours, 35 minutes