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Consumers long for real people instead of automated customer service phone lines

First Connie Young lost her cable service, then her patience. The Las Vegas resident, 67, phoned Cox Communications a couple of months ago and couldn’t navigate the interactive voice response system.

“They asked me what my problem was, and then I named it and they said it’s not a valid option,” she recalled.

Large companies like computerized call centers because they replace people who have to be paid to collect and provide basic information, such as account numbers and balances. According to telecommunications marketing researcher Walt Tetschner, the man-hours saved can pay for the system’s price — from about $100,000 to in the millions — in a few short months.

“If using the automated attendant saves 30 seconds per call,” said Cox Communications spokesman Juergen Barbusca, “on an annual basis, that’s a lot of hours.”

However, a growing number of customers are fed up with talking to machines.

“They put you on hold and they want you to dial this, that and the other thing,” said Linda Chapman, 65, of Pahrump, who dreads the calls she has to make to Medicare.

“I’m glad they’re paying for the phone call,” she said.

Automated call centers debuted in the early ’70s, taking about 10 years to permeate the corporate landscape. By the mid-’80s, many rolled out speech-recognition technology.

“They thought this was the answer to spending all that money on customer service,” Tetschner said.

But speech-recognition technology is about 95 percent accurate, according to Tetschner — less so with noise on the line or a heavy accent.

By the mid-’90s, the “press 0” live-operator shortcut became one of the world’s worst-kept secrets, defeating much of the cost-cutting achieved by automation.

“So these companies asked, ‘How do we get more people to use these things?’ ” Tetschner said. “Let’s make it harder for them to get a person.”

Now, about a third of all corporate toll-free numbers no longer recognize “0” or the voice commands “operator” or “agent” as a shortcut. Some don’t identify a shortcut until the second or third prompt, others not at all.

“There’s no excuse for it,” Tetschner said.

In 2008, Tetschner started a Web site, get2human.com, revealing hidden numerical and voice shortcuts for more than 1,300 of the nation’s most-dialed toll-free numbers. (Cox Communications’ Las Vegas branch is not listed, though its shortcut is repeated 5’s.)

Sometimes, systems even seem to punish consumers who attempt incorrect shortcuts, by starting their recordings over and erasing any progress made through the prompts.

“If you want to check your bank balance or flight status, automated response makes sense,” Tetschner said. “But what they’ve done is try to automate everything.”

Get2human.com lets users rate company call systems. (Sprint Long Distance, Spirit Airlines, Shell Gas Card, Cricket Communications, Priceline, Free Annual Credit Report and Citi Mortgage are among the worst. The best include American Red Cross, Avis, Diner’s Club, Hertz, Liberty Tax Service, Thrifty and Zappos.)

Banks fare well in the ratings, probably because the majority still permit the “press 0” shortcut.

“I can’t speak for other institutions,” said Rudiger Merz, executive marketing vice president for Nevada State Bank, “but there are still a lot of people out there who just want to talk to a human being. The baby boomers and retirees still prefer to have human interaction. They show more affinity toward the branch or the live operator.

“So we offer them that choice.”

Tetschner attributes this trend to the heavy competition in the banking field, versus monopolistic power, cable and government entities.

“(Banks) are going to do whatever it takes to keep customers from walking across the street to someone else,” he said.

Even if you get in the human queue right away, however, it could take an inhuman amount of time before one answers. Chapman says her Medicare hold time is never less than 20 minutes, sometimes as long as an hour.

“Then the person picks up and takes two seconds to help me,” she says. “Why can’t you take that two seconds to begin with, instead of all this other crap?”

After pushing random buttons for 10 frustrating minutes, Connie Young decided to let the Cox Communications message start over and play through, keeping quiet and seeing where it led her.

“(Whatever) department it took me to, the recording said it was closed — I guess that’s because it was Sunday,” she said.

On Monday, Young called to find out that Cox’s tech support department is, indeed, open on Sundays.

“I just couldn’t reach it,” she said.

Contact reporter Corey Levitan at clevitan@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0456.

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