Customer service takes a turn back to low-tech solutions

Businesses can save money with automated phone systems and online help centers, but what is the cost in terms of customer aggravation?

Business owners may want to rethink their machines, with their endless lists of options, when they consider the case of online movie rental company Netflix, along with the "get human" consumer movement.

Netflix has decided that offering real customer service - with real people at the end of the phone line - is a viable business option. In the past, customers seeking help with subscriptions or missing DVDs were instructed to send an e-mail from the Netflix site. They are now directed to a toll-free number, which connects to a customer service representative in Oregon.

Combine that recent development with the amazing response one blogger received two years ago when he published a "cheat sheet" of ways to outfox the automated systems to get a real person at hundreds of airlines, credit card companies, utilities, government agencies and more. What Paul English, a Boston computer expert, started in 2005 has been accessed by more than 1 million consumers frustrated by long waits, repeated requests to enter the same information, dropped calls and the like. His website is

"I don't believe all IVR (interactive voice response) systems are bad, but people should not have to tap in their bank account numbers when all they want to find out is when their local branch closes," English told the Times of London.

An inability to reach a live representative is one of the top complaints of consumers calling customer-service centers, according to experts and surveys of the customer-service industry, Newsday columnist Richard J. Dalton Jr. wrote recently.

"Making it hard to talk to an agent really hurts companies in their satisfaction ratings," said Peter Leppik, co-founder and chief executive of Vocal Laboratories, a Minneapolis company that surveys people after customers place a service call. "But the reason why they do it is that talking to an agent is expensive and using automation is cheap," Newsday reported. It is apparently 10 to 20 times more costly to hire trained staffers.

Observed Albany Times-Union editor-at-large Harry Rosenfeld: "The savings that come to firms resorting to automated systems is extracted out of the hide of callers who need to expend their valuable time and deplete their store of psychic energy to accomplish what could be promptly and efficiently handled by a human respondent. If customers were to bill the seller for their time and effort, cost-savings would dwindle. Somebody ought to pass a law, but no one will."

CPA firms can also take note of a recent survey by consultants The Bay Street Group LLC, which asked clients how their CPA firms could better satisfy their needs. "Communicate!" was a common answer. Dana L. Sutton, a sole proprietor in Hindsville, AR, continued, "Clients don't care how much you know - they just want you to return their phone calls - or take them in the first place," CPA Trendlines reported.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses offers some advice for creating a customer-friendly phone system. No. 1 on the list? "Enable customers to be put through immediately to a real live person when pressing 0. Make sure that the initial set of choices includes this option." The list ends, however, with this: "Consider not using an automated system at all. If your level of business warrants it, hiring a receptionist to answer the phones will enhance your image immensely. Customers love to be greeted by a person who can answer their questions or direct them to someone who can."

It sure beats an automated voice saying, "Please hold; your call is important to us."

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