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Originally published November 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 8, 2005 at 9:31 AM

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How to outsmart automated phone systems

Press 1 if you've ever been trapped in phone-system hell when calling the customer-service line of a large company. Press 2 if you've ever...

Times consumer-affairs Reporters

Press 1 if you've ever been trapped in phone-system hell when calling the customer-service line of a large company.

Press 2 if you've ever cursed, yelled or hung up in despair before reaching a human being.

Press 3 for shortcuts to go straight to a real person.

To help you escape from automated phone purgatory, The Seattle Times has compiled a consumer's guide for thwarting the phone systems at about 60 local and national companies and government agencies.

We spent more than 2 ½ hours on hold while experimenting with various tricks to bypass the phone menus, voice prompts and automated routing systems to reach a human. A few made it easy to get an operator. Others required a virtual tap dance of carefully timed number-pushing, or they trapped callers in an endless loop of options.

The worst we encountered: United Airlines, at 16 ½ minutes from start of call to human voice, even with the shortcuts. Starbucks card services came in second at 16 minutes.

Shortcuts and tips


• You may get faster service through the company's Web site or by using a "live-chat" messaging option to send a message to the company.

• Sometimes it's faster to not respond at all when prompted by an automated phone system or to pretend you're calling from a rotary-dial phone.

• Usually, you can press a bypass option listed in our chart right after the automated answering system starts in; you don't have to wait for the message to finish or the menu choices to be listed. But sometimes, if you're too quick, you may end up in the Spanish menu.

• In a pinch, calling the number for new customers, new orders or subscriptions will likely send you to a real person. That person may not be able to help you, but might transfer you to someone who can.

• Do some research before you call to see whether there's a direct customer-service number on your warranty card, manual or receipt.

• Avoid making calls from your cellphone. It's sometimes difficult for systems to "hear" the numbers you press.

Source: Times staff, Howard Lee of HyperQuality

The fastest response time? Nordstrom answered the phone so fast it hadn't even started ringing on our end. At Southwest Airlines, a person picked up in 20 seconds.

The work was inspired by high-tech entrepreneur Paul English, who created his own online "cheat sheet" of shortcuts to reach a human at some of the nation's biggest companies.

English remembers reaching the boiling point the day he called the phone company with a simple question about call forwarding. He was transferred to four different departments that offered contradictory answers.

"I sometimes laugh at these companies, how they do customer service," said English, a self-described "phone geek" living in Boston who helped launch the Internet travel company Kayak.com. "I just got increasingly frustrated about what companies are putting us through as consumers."

English started his database a couple of years ago and maintains it with the help of a few volunteers — and insiders who secretly write to him to provide the back-door phone numbers for reaching humans in their companies.

Most companies know that consumers hate their automated phone systems, called IVR or Interactive Voice Response. But they also know that automation makes financial sense.

A company may spend 50 cents to $1 a minute when a representative answers your call compared with 5 cents a minute when an automated phone system does the work, said Paul Kowal, a Boston consultant on customer-service quality.

Consumers can blame themselves in part for the customer-service void, Kowal said. More consumers now comparison-shop online to find the lowest price, or visit the brick-and-mortar site to compare or test-drive a product — and then go home and buy it online.

"That's slimmed margins down to the point where companies can't afford to spend a lot of time to keep customers happy," Kowal said.

The best automated systems route customers quickly to someone who can answer their questions, said Howard Lee, CEO of Seattle-based HyperQuality, which monitors company call centers.

"Unfortunately, in many cases, many companies use them just to delay response so that they can handle more calls," Lee said.

Smart companies are responding to what Kowal said is a growing consumer backlash, driven by the Internet where one customer's complaint can reach millions of consumers.

Some companies now use systems that recognize the phone numbers of their best customers and usher them directly to a person. Some are experimenting with voice-recognition programs to make the automated menus more palatable. Instead of requiring you to push a button, a computerized voice asks how it can help, then picks out key words from your spoken request to route you correctly.

Other companies are testing emotion-detection technology, red-flagging your call if the program senses frustration (harsh or foul language, a rising decibel level, the name of a competitor). The system then issues an alert to managers and — maybe — prompts a quicker response.

And some companies say they're responding to customer complaints by making it easier to reach a representative.

Within the next month, Macy's department stores will tell callers how to reach a person in the first menu they hear.

Until that new system is in place, customers who want to talk with someone at Macy's need to press zero repeatedly and ignore the automated voice telling them it can't understand.

"That obviously isn't what we want our customers doing — hunting and pecking for a way to reach someone," spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said. "We're like most companies in any service industry. We are striking a balance between costs and customer service."

But customers want automated systems that make sense and are efficient.

Nordstrom was one of just a few companies The Times called that has no automated system. Operators pick up the phone when customers call, a key part of Nordstrom's service, spokeswoman Brooke White said.

At some companies, you don't have to listen to the hold music very long before concluding they would prefer you hung up or retreated to their Web sites rather than wasting their time with silly questions.

The automated systems dolefully estimate your likely wait time — although we found the wait time often was exaggerated.

Using the most common shortcut — pressing zero to bypass the system — causes some company phone systems to hang up on you. Others try to herd you back into line by feigning confusion if they sense you're trying to do an end run.

Lee and Kowal urge their corporate clients to connect customers to an operator when they press zero. It's tempting for companies to remove that option because their main desk gets swamped with questions employees there can't answer.

Which brings to mind another problem: Reaching a human at these companies doesn't guarantee you'll get the answers you need.

But it's a start.

Jolayne Houtz: 206-464-3122 or jhoutz@seattletimes.com

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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