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January 24, 2011

Solving Phone Message Systems

Steven R. Berryman

Even jokes about how bad phone message routing systems have become are bad now. For instance, one car dealership has bragged about “pressing the dreaded number 3” if you have a problem. Their solution had been to put a human on the other side of the switchboard.


But they are the only ones. Most other businesses saved a nickel and have purchased user-programmable software packages to guide your decision matrix. Be it a call to SallieMae for credit, or Verizon or Comcast for high speed Internet concerns, the only constant will be: (1) they will route you through a digital maze of dial one-two-three for this and that; or (2): the first recorded message you will receive after your choice of languages will be: please note that our menu has recently changed to better serve you; and (3): you will end up being “better served” only in the restaurant sense!


Murphy’s Law would be correct in that you cannot possibly listen carefully enough to make the correct number choices on attempt #1. Should Murphy do an update, it would probably claim that the first time you figured the numbers out, your fumble fingers would hit the wrong numbers by accident; you would then get a chance to go back one menu.


Berryman’s corollary to this is that should everything go as planned, you would then find you had called from a hand-held digital device (like a cell phone) and either (1) drop the call and have to call from scratch; or (2) be asked to key in an alpha-numeric number like 1-800-224-ABCD. In this case, you will find that your cell phone only has numerals on each key, so you are lost. You will be humiliated into running to the basement for your 1980s cordless phone with an old keypad.


The call dropping aspect is especially painful when you are getting close to a solution at the end of the phone-tree of numbers. You’re almost there and then comes the exasperating “If you’d like to make a call, please try again.”


Easily the worst case is when you attempt to call your telephone service provider itself, as they know exactly when it’s best to drop a call! They must have a voice recognition system keyed to detecting stress levels.


When you finally get a human being at the end of your frustrations, many minutes will have passed, and this could possibly be your third bout with the attempts by now; pills…no…longer…helping! In this case, you no doubt will get the wrong human.


This human agent will then refer you to a telephone number that he’s been giving out for months to a phone line that was changed a year ago. He will offer to stay on the line with you out of compassion … but his line will go dead, too.


Now, after answering a minimum of the first two prompts for a number – this demonstrates your sincerity to the computer code – one strategy is to continue to hit the “O” for operator key until you develop a callous. At this point you will get to another human.


Asking a human operator to speak to a supervisor is one approach to solving a problem. This may get your call transferred from Bhopal, India, to somewhere in Bangladesh. You will not hear the set-up of the call before the transfer while you were placed on a temporary hold, where your first operator will tell them that you have been a rude caller.


Upon feigning compassion, the supervisor will then solve your issues as if the solutions had been there right in front of everyone already, and for a long time. For instance, if you had a question about a line of credit account, the recent activity, payoff amount, or due date, you answer will be readily available, and you will finally go away happy!


Is there anything else we can help you with, Mr.…...Bellyman? Would you like to take our quick and easy survey at the end of this call?


After you have wisely decided to skip the customer satisfaction survey, your worst fears will be realized: The information you have received had been exactly correct, but for the wrong account!



Email me at to tell me your story… (or press 6 to speak with my editor!)



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