Your Call is Important to Us. Yeah, Sure.

Posted by Gary Hamel on April 28, 2010

I was reflecting the other day on the near infinite number of ways in which companies annoy their customers. A few that make me go “grrrrrr:”

– Being forced to rifle through a two-foot pile of garments in order to find my size.
– Having to search through lines of nano-sized text at the bottom of an unsolicited email offer to find the “unsubscribe” button.
– Getting handed a hotel key but not being told where to find the elevators.
– Not getting notified in advance when an “auto-renewing” subscription is about to auto-renew.
– Getting asked on the phone for the same information I entered on the keypad a scant two minutes ago.
– Having to dig out the manual to reset the clock in your car.
– Being unable to interrogate a retailer’s inventory online—so I can sidestep the risk of driving 10 miles only to discover that what I wanted is out of stock.
– Watching flight attendants gab in the front of the cabin oblivious to a blinking call button.

What irks me most, though, is when companies barricade their customer support staff behind a near impenetrable wall of multi-level telephone prompts. I mean, golly, you’d think I was trying to get through the White House switchboard rather than obtain a part number for my broken dishwasher.

Truth be told, there are lots of companies that provide exemplary phone support. DirecTV, Virgin America and Apple are a few that regularly exceed my expectations. But for every “gee-you-were-really-helpful” experience there are usually ten others that test the outer limits of my patience and equanimity. You try staying engaged while a disembodied voice works its way through a seven-item list of tech support options! “Press 9 to hear this menu again.” Grrrrrr.

It often seems that the entire customer support experience has been designed with the goal of minimizing human interaction, rather than maximizing, well, support. And then there are all those blatantly insincere automated messages. Am I the only one who has ever called down God’s wrath on a digitized voice? I get the fact that companies are trying to keep their call center costs to a minimum—but I wish they’d at least be honest about that.

Instead of telling us: “We are experiencing unusually heavy call volumes . . .”
They should say: “Even more of our underpaid and overworked staff called in sick than usual.”

Instead of telling us: “You may be able to find what you need on our Web site . . .”
They should say: “There are 10 people in the world who still haven’t heard about the Internet and we want to make sure you’re not one of them.”

Instead of telling us: “Your approximate wait time is 15 minutes . . .”
They should say: “When our employees sit around doing nothing it costs us money. When you sit around cooling your heels it costs us nothing. You do the math.”

Instead of telling us: “I’m sorry I didn’t understand that command . . .”
They should say: “Take the donut out of your mouth and pretend you’re in France. Speak loudly and slowly—and be prepared to repeat everything twice.”

Instead of telling us: “Did you know that we’re offering (insert irritating and irrelevant ad message here) . . .”
They should say: “We’re paying for this call, so stop messing around on Facebook and listen up.”

Instead of telling us: “Your call is very important to us . . .”
They should say: “Who are we kidding? If your call was really important we would have already connected you to a carbon-based life form.”

This sort of candor wouldn’t get you to an expert any faster, but at least you’d feel your intelligence hadn’t been insulted. Speaking personally, that alone would improve my demeanor—and keep me out of trouble with Commandment #3.

So, dear reader, how would you re-script some of those annoying and disingenuous automated messages? And what suggestions do you have for making customer support more customer-centric?


Gary, get used to it.

I was a member of a consulting team in the late 90's which downsized the support function of a major telco. The bottom line - their ability to price their service had eroded to the point where base marginal revenue looked like zero and the base customers would switch with 100% certainty if a competitive offering were evaluated. The result was a realization "in the future, we cannot afford to provide customer service in the way we have in the past". Plain and simple - you don't expect Google to pick up the phone because they didn't exist in the days of phone support.

The rest of us (the customers) have spent the last decade complaining about the modifications to service levels rather than adjusting to the fact that those days are gone.