A Phone Tree of Twisty Little Passages

aerial shot of maze
Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

I had to make–for me–a rare call to the bank to get some information about the title to a car we’d paid off. I put this off for as long as I could because calling support for just about anything is one of my least favorite things to do. Alas, there was no option to perform this particular activity online, and when I could wait no longer, I dialed the number. As the automated customer service line opened up, I was transported into some Kafkaesque hell. Here I was, a lone adventurer, like the one in the classic text adventure game, Zork, standing in a maze of twisty little passages.

The first problem, always, is figuring out how break out of the maze and get to an agent. The usual spells didn’t work. I tried casting an “agent” spell, but the menu of options was just repeated. I tried casting a “zero” spell, but the support center “did not understand that request.”

Unable to break from this prison, I tried to establish the “shortest path” to my goal. After several fledgeling minutes, I found a promising avenue. I was asked to enter the last four digits of my social security number. I did that. I was then prompted for my account number. I did that. The system didn’t recognize my account number. Rather than ask me for it again, it went back to the “last four digits” cavern. I repeated the last four digits of my SSN, and then, thinking I may have miskeyed my account number, keyed it in very slowly.

No luck.

All I wanted to do was talk to a person and ask a simple question that wasn’t among the dozen or so most common options that the phone tree was designed to support.

They say the definition of insanity is trying the same thing more than once and expecting different results. This time, I entered the last four digits of my SSN, keyed in my account number carefully, and then, on whim, finished by hitting the pound key. That worked! (The system never told me to hit the pound key. I double-checked.) I had escaped from one passage, only to find myself in another. I navigated trees, branching left here, right there, wandering in what seemed like darkness, until finally (finally!) ten minutes into the call, I was told, “please hold for our next available representative.”

Then I was told that “call volumes are higher than usual” and would I please wait. I can no longer remember a time when call volumes were not “higher than usual.” This is never an encouraging sign. If so many people are calling the support line of a service that their call volume is constantly higher than usual, it tells me there is a problem with the underlying service. Why else would anyone commit themselves to the hellish nightmare that is automated phone support?

Two minutes later, however, “Chris”–a real live human being so far as I could tell–came on the line. I had been on the phone for 12 minutes at this point. Ten in the phone tree of twisty little passages and two on hold with loud music. I still can’t decide which was worse.

Chris was able to answer my question in under two minutes. The entire call lasted 14 minutes. The usual part of the call lasted about 2 minutes. How on earth is that efficient?

I no longer see the point of automated phone support. One might argue that not everyone has access to the Internet and the phone support provides access for those people who can’t get online or use a computer. I can’t see much of a difference. The phone tree swallows people whole. Given how many times I have personally given up on phone trees, I can’t see that they are much better than no support at all. These days, I even prefer bots to phone trees.

Companies that use automated phone support as a primary support tool should not be allowed to claim that they provide anything better than “mediocre” customer support. I don’t mind a phone tree that triages some basic information that makes it easier for a support person to find my account, so long as once I enter the information, I am directed to a real person and not a tree. Those companies can continue to claim they provide outstanding customer support. But if all you do is tie up customers in a maze of twisty little passages, the best you can say is you provide customer support. No superlatives allowed.

Written on March 16, 2022. (A day after the events described above, when I have had a chance to cool down and think more clearly about this. If I had tried to write this post yesterday, it might have caught fire.)

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One comment

  1. I think nowadays, just about every “customer service” line is designed to frustrate and irritate people into giving up so the companies won’t have to deal with them.

    I’ve actually seen better results, at least in some cases, of people Tweeting their complaints to the companies. Especially if you can get your followers to join in.


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