Press the Pound Key If You’ve Had Enough

“We’re glad you called. Please stay on the line and a customer representative will be with your shortly.”

How many times have you called your cable company or insurance company, maybe your bank or phone company, and heard those words?

Usually “pre-recorded” words…and usually leading you to more “pre-recorded” words, complete with listed options to hear still “other” pre-recorded words? Not a one spoken by a live person. In fact, I’m pretty sure these are more like automated voice algorithms -- an amalgam of officialdom, if you will.

But then again, you were the idiot who called, weren’t you? Aren’t you? You were the one who all but assaulted good form by not going to said company’s website first.

So this is said company’s way of making you pay dearly for that indiscretion now, by making you go through pre-recorded hell; a hell defined not by simple answers, but by un-ending sequences.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: “Press 1, if you’re having service problems; Press 2, if maybe you’re the problem.”

You get the point. Calling customer service almost anywhere seems pretty pointless.

So many questions, so many steps, so many sequences, and usually without talking to so much as one solitary live soul…that more often than not I’m betting folks just hang up in disgust.

Because they’ve waited so long just trying to get a simple answer, to what they thought was a simple issue. Problem is, as damn luck would have it, that issue was invariably not among the numbered options kindly mentioned by a pre-recorded voice that’s a cross between “Siri” and Hal in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Officious. But distant. It’s like we have all entered a customer service calling world that I like to call “coolly clueless.” I frankly don’t know what annoys me more -- the endless waiting or the meaningless assurance I won’t be waiting much longer.

A friend of mine who works in marketing told me there’s actually a science to this -- much like long lines at Disney World that keep weaving and turning, and leaving crowds hoping maybe this waiting hell is ending. “You want to give the customer the appearance she’s making progress,” he tells me, “even if she’s not.”

So whether it’s those constant reminders that “someone will be right with you,” or soothing music to calm you, the hope is that you’ll feel you’re moving along, even if you’re actually being taken for a ride. Then again, you called, didn’t you? I’m betting they’re just hoping you hang up, so they can be done with you. Then they can tend to the idiot who either fell asleep or didn’t show half as much gumption as you.

I always wonder what damage is done to a brand when the company behind that brand treats its customers like cattle. And then has the nerve to remind those customers they’re being recorded being treated like cattle, with the spiffy pre-recorded line: “Your call may be monitored to ensure high quality service.”

Perhaps because so many of us don’t expect anything approaching just basic service, let alone high quality service, we just hang up on that service. Is it any wonder Comcast is having such a devil of a time winning over customers to its grand ambitions. Maybe it’s because they have a big problem answering so much as a single service call, or having a technician show up within the eight-hour window for that supposed-service call. They keep us waiting and agitating but they don’t seem to care, because I guess they figure where else would we be going?

Sadly, those companies that you’d think are all about customer service don’t much care if they don’t provide anything approaching that service. They’ll talk a good game -- even brag in their pre-recorded sequences how looking after you is not a game, but yet they seem to all play these games.

Maybe they’re clueless because they’re soul-less, or are they soul-less because they’re clueless? Sometimes I forget. What I do know is that increasingly a lot of companies forget us -- their bread and butter. And maybe that’s because they figure where else are we going to go?

Many of these firms giving us the runaround are the only games in town. They control monopolies in their respective markets, in which there are few alternatives, or if there are alternatives, they’re just as inept and just as rude.

What’s odder still is the improvements that many of these companies claim they’re making to be more humane, but invariably not with more humans. Some service call centers boast “almost human” automated responses, in which callers can sound out their responses to a mechanized automated operator who somehow manages to play back their comments and requests. We seem flattered the robot heard us, even if more often than not, the first time the robot heard us state that account number, the robot heard it wrong.

I know all this saves companies money. But what does it lose them in customer loyalty? I suspect a lot more.

But I also suspect these same companies have weighed the customer frustration part and concluded if an automated response can get them answers, why hire real-live human beings that cost us money?

One time I actually stayed on the line to relay my experience over a company’s “tell us about your service” survey line (naturally, automated as well). Yet nowhere among the options did I hear: “Press 1 if you think we were rude,” or “Press the Pound Key if you’d prefer pounding our face in if you ever saw us crossing the street.”

No, that would be too easy. Almost as easy as losing customers.