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Jack Knox column: The ninth circle of hell is customer-service limbo

Oct 07 2012

Factoids gleaned from our friend Google:

- The average person will spend 1.2 years on hold on the phone, says Woman's World magazine.

- Executives average 68 hours a year on hold, says USA Today.

- For those two numbers to agree, the average exec must be 154 years old, says my calculator. Even with Rupert Murdoch factored in, that seems a stretch.

Wouldn't normally bother to do the math, but I have a bit of time to kill, having spent the past couple of hours trapped in the customer-service equivalent of the Colwood Crawl. It's an electronic purgatory that threatens to outlast the battery of my phone, which now sits on speaker mode beside me.

Sure, it started out well enough. "Please hold, one of our specialists will be happy to help you," said the recorded perky-girl voice on the other end.

Awesome, not just some entry-level flunky, but an actual specialist. I felt in good hands.

So, I waited. And waited. Grew a beard, read War and Peace, raised four children. Somewhere, a bird sang.

Eventually, the disembodied voice repeated her please-hold message, so I did, just like a Maple Leafs fan parked at Yonge and Bloor, craning his neck for a Stanley Cup parade that never comes.

Then she came back again: "Please hold, one of our specialists...."

And on and on. The perky girl returns periodically, but now her promise sounds more like a taunt. There's no music after she's gone, just a frosty silence. We have reached that point in our relationship: She can say a lot without uttering a word.

As we enter hour three, all hope is gone. Only a bloody-minded, morbid sense of curiosity keeps me from hanging up. In truth, I can't even remember why I called anymore; I think it had something to do with a customer-loyalty program. Now I know how those Chilean miners felt in 2010.

Or perhaps three hours is nothing. In August, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Australian businessman Andrew Kahn spent 15 hours and 40 minutes waiting for someone at Qantas to confirm his flight to the U.S. That's 40 minutes longer than a flight to Los Angeles. Despite a recording that promised attention "as soon as possible," he finally hung up without ever reaching a human.

Kahn did not have the staying power of another Aussie, who reportedly waited 22 hours before giving up on ever speaking to a representative of Vodafone.

Some companies' recordings now give frustrated callers the option of bailing out of the queue, leaving a phone number where they can be reached later.

This is an excellent alternative, as it allows you to turn the tables when your call is returned: "All customers are busy," you can say. "Please be patient. It will be faster than if you hang up and try dialing again."

Well, no, what you really want to say is this:

? Stop lying to me. My call is not important to you. My money is important to you. If my call were important, you would have someone answer it.

? Should I, through some miraculous breach of techno-security, actually manage to reach a human, don't try to shake me off as though I were something you stepped on in the dog park. Don't transfer my call. Don't send me to a list of FAQs on a website. Just answer my FAQing question.

? If you do keep me hanging longer than a side of beef in a meat locker, don't pretend that this bothers you. No perky-girl recording. No fake-sincere apology. We know you don't mean it, so let's drop the charade.

Here's what an honest on-hold recording would say: "You obviously need to talk to us more than we want to talk to you, so you can rot to death while listening to this muzak'd version of Smells Like Teen Spirit for all we care."

But remember this: There is a special place in hell for people who treat their customers this way. In that place will sit a telephone. Try to use it, and you will hear a perky girl's voice: "To escape eternal damnation, press one.... I'm sorry, I didn't recognize that command...."

jknox@timescolonist.com

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