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Getting It All on Tape

Learn how to record customer service phone calls

We hear it all the time: “This call may be recorded for quality assurance.”

Haven’t you ever wished you were the one with the tape, so that you could prove the company promised to waive the fee, close the account, or give you the 30-day free trial? Well, you can be.

Setting up a basic recording system to level the playing field between you and customer service is simple and can be done in an afternoon. It will cost you less than that check your bank bounced after assuring you  there would be no hold on your wire transfer.

First, though, an important suggestion to keep you on the right side of the law: Where I live, in Oregon, only one party needs to know the call is being recorded, and that can be me. In almost every state, if the party at the other end says it might be recording the call, you can record it too. But in some states, you are required to tell anyone on the other end that you’re recording them. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers a guide to state laws, but laws do change. To be certain everything’s legit, make a five-minute phone call to your local legal aid office to confirm the rules on recording phone calls in your state.

To record a call, you’ll need:

  • A recorder (tape or digital ) or a computer with audio input and recording software;


  • A pickup that connects to your phone or phone line.

The pickup is simply a device that sends audio signal from the phone to the recording device. There are three common types: magnetic pickups with suction cups, plug-in pickups that connect to the telephone line, and a new variety that is an earpiece you wear while listening to the call.  

I’d recommend that you not bother with the suction-cup variety unless you have an old-style Western Electric phone because these pickups don’t work well on more modern phones. Plug-in pickups work better, attaching to the line between the phone base and the wall. The in-ear pickups, which have a cord you plug into an input jack, might get tiresome during a long call, but will work for standard or cellular phones. There are lots of pickups on the market for less than $30.

Most everyone knows how to use a cassette tape recorder, so I won’t bother to explain that here. However, many people don’t realize they have a powerful and versatile audio recorder in their computer.  Almost every computer, whether PC or Mac, desktop or laptop, has an audio input—typically a small input jack labeled “line” or “mic,” sometimes colored red.  This is where you’ll plug in the pickup.

To record and save sound on your computer, you’ll need some kind of audio recording software. There are lots of audio recording programs available for PC and Mac computers, typically running around $30. However, if you don’t want to pay anything, I’d recommend Audacity, a free, easy-to-use on-screen recorder. (If you like it a lot, the Web site will allow you to make a donation to the developers.)  

The software takes sound from the call and saves it to your computer’s hard drive. You can use the same software to play it back later. One of the cool things about recording to your computer is that when you have a dispute, you can easily e-mail the recording to the customer service department  to set the record straight.

I’ve been recording my calls to customer service for more than a decade now, and quite a few times I’ve been saved by the permanent record on my computer. One time, when an airline lost a four-seat reservation to Hawaii for a family vacation,the recording proved I’d made the reservation. The airline rebooked the flight, and—for an investment of less than thirty bucks—I avoided a major family meltdown. How much is that worth?


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