The gethuman.com revolution

Story by Chris Graham

I was on the phone with the phone company – in a manner of speaking.

I wasn’t actually talking to a person – and that was the problem.

I had two issues that needed addressing: involving service, one, and two, billing.

But the options that the company’s byzantine interactive voice response system offered up would have ostensibly had me in touch with a real, live person for one or the other, not both.

And of course, given the length of time that I could expect to wait to talk to one or the other, not both, I should inject the word eventually in there somewhere, for posterity.

This was, for the record, before I’d heard of gethuman.com.

“Some of the companies get it – some of the companies realize that this is very important, and that if they don’t start to listen to the consumer needs, they’re going to lose those consumers,” said Lorna Rankin, the project manager at gethuman.com, which offers tips for how to get through the maze of IVR.

Gethuman.com founder Paul English launched the site in January after a whirlwind 12 months that began with him getting the runaround at his local bank, which had been bought out by a larger national bank that prefers to have its phones answered by IVR rather than having real people on the other end of the line.

English had left at his local branch some paperwork that he was interested in retrieving – but when he tried to call the bank, he got the parent company. The parent company wouldn’t put him through to his local branch – so English did what he could to figure out a way to get to a live person at the parent company who would then be able to forward him to his local branch so he could get to the bottom of what had happened with his personal file.

He wrote about what he did to get through the system on his blog – and did the same thing to relate experiences with other companies that he found particularly frustrating.

English then invited visitors to his blog to share what they knew about getting around automated-caller systems. The tips, all verified by gethuman.com staff, run the gamut – from the often-reliable press-zero option to the pretend-you’re-on-a-rotary-phone gambit to going the English-as-a-second-language route.

“For many companies, the queues for those lines are smaller than the standard lines – plus, the operators are generally bilingual. So you can get to them, and they can usually help you with your problem,” Rankin told The Augusta Free Press.

Another approach that works on many phone systems is connecting to the sales or marketing departments.

“These companies figure that if you’re going to spend money with them, then they are going to staff their centers for those purposes. So you’ll have better luck getting to a human if you’re doing something like trying to pay a bill or trying to place an order to go down that line. And if do get put through to those other representatives, you can ask to be put through to customer service or a person will be able to help with your issue in particular,” Rankin said.

“It doesn’t mean that you won’t have to wait at all – but generally speaking, we’ve found from our testing, you do get through to a human without having to go through all the prompts, and also generally the waits are less if you do it that way,” Rankin said.

The popularity of gethuman.com – the site has been registering more than 1 million unique visitors a month since its debut – is not at all a surprise to Keith Bailey, the coauthor of Customer Service for Dummies.

“People are really unhappy about having to interface with technology and not being able to reach a person no matter what they do. The response to gethuman.com and how that really attracted a lot of buzz in the press is a function of people just being sick of it,” Bailey told the AFP.

It isn’t likely, however, that the feeling of disfavor that gethuman.com has tapped into will necessarily translate into a widescale scrapping of IVR phone systems, Bailey said.

The reason – it costs a company in the area of five cents per interaction to conduct customer-service-oriented business via an automated phone system or via e-mail and closer to $5 or even $10 to do business directly via phone.

“They want to cut down on their call-center staffs, and it’s much easier for them and much more effective and efficient for the call centers to be working via e-mail and the Web,” Bailey said.

“And so it is that we’ve got systems now that are so sophisticated that you can’t get through to a human being. And I’m calling it sophisticated – though it’s a strange use of the word sophisticated. In a way, it’s more crude than it’s ever been,” Bailey said.

Bailey has encountered this crudeness himself recently. He had an item to return to Amazon.com, and it was the kind of issue “that I needed to call them about, because I couldn’t explain it easily in an e-mail.”

Bailey said he searched endlessly for a phone number on the Amazon.com Web site.

“It got to the point where it became like a personal mission of mine to find a phone number,” Bailey said.

He never did find a number on the site – though he did find what he was looking for elsewhere and eventually (there’s that word again) got through to somebody.

Like Rankin, Bailey recognizes that more and more companies appear to be seeing the benefit to offering more hands-on customer service.

“There are probably still a majority of companies out there that don’t value their customer-service skills or their customer-service reputation enough to put the bucks behind making it a little bit more customer friendly. However, there are those companies that are very aware of that and want to always offer you the option of reaching a human being who can answer your questions,” Bailey said.

“I think what’s happening is a lot of companies are getting savvy to the fact that they do need to have human interaction – and are really profiting from offering that, because it just generates a better will on the part of customer relations,” Bailey said.

A service that gethuman.com will soon be rolling out will put companies to the test. Visitors to the site are given the opportunity to rate their customer-service experiences – and the ratings are on schedule to be released in late April, Rankin said.

“Our users are already seeking information to help them switch to other companies, and this data will help them make informed decisions about where to spend their money as consumers,” Rankin said.

Bailey has a feeling that companies will be paying close attention to where they stand in the gethuman.com ratings.

“Customer loyalty is very important to organizations – because when customers are loyal, they’ll come back, and they’ll even forgive you when you screw up if you’ve got enough loyalty. But if you don’t have the loyalty, customers are just going to go where they can get the cheapest product – and you can never really compete on price, because there’s always going to be someone that’s got a price lower than yours,” Bailey said.

“Competing on the quality of service and competing on keeping your customers happy and keeping your customers doing business with you, that’s a whole different ballgame. That’s much longer term,” Bailey said.

“I’m just thrilled that gethuman.com started – because it’s fighting back against technology,” Bailey said.

 

(Published 04-03-06)

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