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Author Speaks: Don’t Hang Up!—An Inside Look at Customer Service Call Centers

Dial a company’s customer service phone number and what do you get—when your call finally gets through? Robotic automated-response prompts. Long hold periods and continued transfers. Outsourced agents with broken English or, no matter where they’re located, even more fractured attitudes.

In making some 43 billion phone calls to call centers each year—about 1,363 per second—many Americans hang up (or increasingly, are hung up on) feeling more than just annoyance or frustration. Customer satisfaction surveys indicate that as many as 70 percent of callers feel a sense of rage. But too often, what they don’t get is customer service.

Emily Yellin can relate. Her own exasperating experience in trying to schedule a repair to a furnace under warranty inspired her to write Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us: Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives, an in-depth look into the inner workings of the often dysfunctional multibillion-dollar industry of customer service call centers. A journalist who has written for the New York Times, Time magazine and other leading publications, Yellin spoke with the AARP Bulletin about what she learned in her three-year effort, a journey that led her to four continents to speak with call center agents, corporate executives, industry leaders and many, many dissatisfied customers.

Q. With consumers raging after service calls, is the industry that bad, or are we overreacting?

A. Maybe one in 10 of all customer service calls goes badly, but when they occur, we’re on guard for the next 10 calls we make. That boils down to our expectations: When we as consumers call customer service, we often know what needs to be done and we want to hear “yes.” We don’t want to hear “tomorrow” or “hold on, I’ll transfer you,” and we don’t want to be rushed. When that occurs, we get upset and feel we lose our dignity.

Q. But it seems to many that service is getting worse.

A. What has happened increasingly, especially in the last five years, is that many companies haven’t paid attention to customer service and continue to view the success of a call center from their own viewpoint—as a cost whose success is based on the number of calls they can handle in an hour.

Q. What upsets us most? Feeling rushedor the difficulty in getting through, reaching someone who is helpful, speaks English or is actually human?

A. It’s all that, but when we’re on the phone, people say and do things they normally wouldn’t in a face-to-face conversation—on both ends. Nearly all customers I spoke with say that at one point or another, they were hung up on by “live” customer service agents. Many companies realize they can make or save money without paying for good customer service.

Q. Is that why more companies outsource call centers overseas or use automated phone systems?

A. The average cost to companies with an American-based call center is about $7.50 per call. Outsourcing calls to live agents in another country—such as India, the Philippines and increasingly, Latin America and Egypt—brings down the cost to about $2.35 per call, and having customers take care of the problem themselves—through an automated response phone system—averages about 32 cents per call.

Q. Why are those countries chosen? How do they differ?

A. Overseas countries are often chosen for call centers because they have a high percentage of bilingual, college-educated people. A call center worker in India, who usually has a college degree and is proficient in English, can earn a starting salary of $4,500 a year answering customer service calls from American customers. Latin America is doing very well—perhaps we’re more used to their accents, and their culture has more affinity with the United States. And the Philippines also does well because they were occupied by the U.S. and their cultural orientation is more service-oriented.

Q. From the perspective of customer service representatives, what distinguishes Americans from other consumers?

A. I asked that question to an agent in an Egyptian call center who handled English-speaking customers of Microsoft’s Xbox. Americans, he said, want to know all the options available and then they want to pick what they want to do. Brits, he added, just want you to tell them the right answer.

Q. What should consumers do to get better customer service?

A. It’s very important to treat it as a business call, but we often take bad service personally. Before you call, it’s a good idea to figure out how much you spend with that company. If you spent $100 a month for cable service and you’ve been with that company for three years, you have more ammunition to say “I’ve spent $3,600 with your company” when calling about a dispute worth maybe $25.

Q. What do you do?

A. As a matter of course, I take notes of when I begin my call how long it takes to reach a person. I also make agents stop and repeat their name so they know I have it. Legally, you can ask where agents are located so if they if they hang up on you or you’re transferred, you know who you spoke to, when and where they are. If you have problems understanding an overseas agent, you can say, “Understanding you is a challenge for me, and would like to speak with someone else.” You may be transferred to a call center in Ireland, for instance, but you can ask to speak with an American agent.

Q. Many of us do thatand still get bad customer service. What then?

A. The old way was to write a letter to the company, but that isn’t as powerful anymore. That’s why social networking is so helpful to make your experiences known. Get Satisfaction is a website whose entire business is bringing companies and customers together in a forum where everyone is civil, uses their full names, and addresses customer service complaints in a humane way. Many companies monitor that, as well as Twitter.

Q. Any other helpful websites?

A: If you want to write a letter, at The Consumerist you can look up the company and see what troubles other customers had and sometimes find phone numbers of executives to call. For the very basic problem of reaching a live agent, go to gethuman, which provides phone numbers and instructions to get a person.

The point is, you need to recognize that you, as a consumer, have power and you can use it. You can’t just passively expect companies to do the right thing; often, they don’t.

Q. How can we get through to live agents more quickly without having to get the inside shortcuts at gethuman?

A. Saying the word “agent” or dialing 0 is obvious, but in doing that, some systems are programmed to hang up on you. Another way is to not say anything—pretend you have a rotary phone and you will be switched to someone. If you choose the Spanish instructions option, you will usually get a bilingual operator who speaks English.

But I recommend a little patience. The reason for the auto-prompt is to know where to send you. Sometimes, there are hundreds of places to send a caller for the right assistance.

Q. So if we manage to reach the ideal—a live person fluent in English—how do we get the service we need when so many agents don’t seem to care?

A. Sometimes they don’t care. But other times, customer service agents don’t have the information needed or authority to help you. They’re not necessarily going to telegraph that to you, because they’re getting measured and also being recorded; that’s when you may hear “that’s our policy”—and it’s time to ask for supervisor. But sometimes, the supervisors don’t have the information or the authority either, or they just don’t care.

Q. How has the economic downturn affected customer service?

A. The good news is that it’s made more companies recognize that it takes a lot more money to try to get a new customer than to keep the customers it already has. And in a bad economy, companies really want to keep their customers.   

The bad news is in an economic downturn, when companies need to cut expenses, customer service is often where they cut first.

Q. Does that mean even more companies are moving toward automated call centers?

A. They are, but automated systems can be done well or done poorly. FedEx, for instance, receives 65,000 customer service calls a day and cannot have a human being answer all those calls when automated systems are available. Even with automation, its agents average 100 to 200 phone calls each per eight-hour shift. The key to automation work is to balance the technology with humanity—companies have to make it possible to reach a human being relatively easily because when we call customer service, it’s because we’ve exhausted other options.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life.

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