Your Call Should Be Important to Us, but It's Not

Under New Management Your Call Should Be Important to Us, but It's Not

By WILLIAM C. TAYLOR The New York Times =46ebruary 26, 2006

PAUL M. ENGLISH never imagined that a pet peeve would become such a cause clbre. For more than four years, Mr. English, a veteran technologist and serial entrepreneur, has maintained a blog on which he shares everything from his favorite chocolate cake recipe to the best management advice he's received.

But last summer, fed up with too many aggravating run-ins with awful customer service, Mr. English posted a blog entry that reverberated around the world: a "cheat sheet" that explained how to break through automated interactive voice-response systems at a handful of companies and speak to a human being. He named the companies and published their codes for reaching an operator -- codes that they did not share with the public.

The reaction was overwhelming. Visitors to the blog began contributing their own code-breaking secrets and spreading the word. The consumer affairs specialist for The Boston Globe wrote about Mr. English, who is now the chief technical officer of Kayak.com, a travel search engine he helped to found, and gave his online cheat sheet mainstream attention. That led to appearances on MSNBC, NPR and the BBC, an article in People magazine -- and more than one million visitors to the blog in January alone.

So, this month, Mr. English transformed his righteous indignation into a full-blown crusade. He started Get Human, which he calls a grass-roots movement to "change the face of customer service." The accompanying Web site,

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sets out principles for the right ways for companies to interact with customers, encourages visitors to rate their experiences (the site is to issue a monthly best-and-worst list), and publishes many more secret codes unearthed by members of the movement. As of last week, the ever-expanding cheat sheet offered cut-through-the-automation tips for nearly 400 companies.

"I'm not anticomputer," Mr. English explained over lunch near his office in suburban Boston. "`I've been a programmer for more than 20 years. I'm not anticapitalist. I'm on my fifth start-up. But I am anti-arrogance. Why do the executives who run these call centers think they can decide when I deserve to speak to a human being and when I don't?"

The Get Human cheat sheet makes for entertaining - and mystifying - reading. Want to reach an operator at a certain major bank? Just press

0#0#0#0#0#0#. Want to reach an agent at a big dental insurance company? Press 00000, wait through a message, select language, 4, 0. Want to reach a human at a leading consumer electronics retailer? Press 111## and wait through three prompts asking for your home phone number.

It would be funny if it weren't so depressing - and such bad business. Countless chief executives pledge to improve their company's products and services by listening to the "voice of the customer." Memo to the corner office: Answer the phone! How can companies listen to their customers if those customers have such a hard time reaching a human being when they call?

The obvious defense is that it's prohibitively expensive to offer the personal touch to millions of curious, confused, angry (or even enthusiastic) callers. The trouble is, companies tend to be better at cutting costs than at identifying missed opportunities.

Richard Shapiro is president of the Center for Client Retention in Springfield, N.J., a business that dials out to customers who have dialed in to toll-free call centers and asks them to evaluate their experiences. He argues that customers who interact with human beings are more likely than other callers to volunteer useful information, try out a new product and come away with a strong sense of loyalty - positive outcomes that are eliminated by excessive automation.

=2E..

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Monty Solomon
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