Phone Guide Is a Real Customer Service

Entrepreneur Paul English has produced a "must have" for the modern consumer. It's a guide to the customer service phone systems of major corporations. The big payoff? The guide tells you the quickest way to reach a human.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The sound you're about to hear is a sound that makes many of us scream.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Unidentified Woman #1: To ensure quality service, your call may be monitored or recorded. Please enter or say your home telephone number, area code first.

INSKEEP: But hold on for a moment, if you would, because we're going to talk to a man who can help ease our pain. His name is Paul English, and he's created an online cheat sheet that helps customers navigate their way through the early stages of phone menu hell. And he joins us from member station WBUR in Boston.

Welcome.

Mr. PAUL ENGLISH (Blogger): Good morning.

INSKEEP: I take it you don't do this for a living, do you?

Mr. ENGLISH: No, I certainly don't. I am just a typical consumer who is as frustrated with this as others. I am a frequent blogger and I put a blog together. I think I started last March, where I listed ideas on how to get past, I think, about 10 companies to get started, and it's taken a life of its own since there.

INSKEEP: Can we pick one of these companies and work through--give us an example.

Mr. ENGLISH: This is an interesting one. This is for Capital One Visa.

(Soundbite of dial tone)

Mr. ENGLISH: It's going to ask us to enter our credit card number, which I'm not going to do.

(Soundbite of telephone being dialed)

Mr. ENGLISH: Instead, I will just entered 0-0, and I'm going to ignore the prompts.

INSKEEP: A battle of wills. Let's go.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Woman #2: Welcome to Capital One business services. Please enter your 16-digit credit card number.

Mr. ENGLISH: All right, so here I'm just entering 0-0.

Unidentified Woman #2: We are unable to locate that account. Please try again.

(Soundbite of beeping noise)

INSKEEP: You just hit 0 again, double 0.

Unidentified Woman #2: For faster service, please choose from the following four choices.

INSKEEP: It gave up.

Unidentified Woman #2: For existing account information, press one.

(Soundbite of beeping noise)

Mr. ENGLISH: So here, I just entered 0-0 again. I didn't really listen to the menu.

INSKEEP: And finally...

Mr. ENGLISH: In this case, I think for Capital One, they will connect me direct to a human.

JEEF(ph) (Capital One): Thank you for calling Capital One. My name is Jeef. May I get your 16-digit account number, please?

Mr. ENGLISH: Hi. My name is Paul English. I'm actually calling from NPR, and you are being recorded. I hope that's OK.

JEEF: OK.

Mr. ENGLISH: Where are you located today?

JEEF: In New Delhi, India.

Mr. ENGLISH: Oh, that's great. Do you find that customers are sometimes frustrated that it takes a long time to get you on the phone?

JEEF: Yes, the customer gets very upset about that. Sometime, it took 15 minutes, 20 minutes, on an average. You can take up 15 minutes (unintelligible).

Mr. ENGLISH: OK. Well, thanks for the information.

JEEF: OK.

Mr. ENGLISH: OK, bye-bye.

JEEF: Same to you.

Mr. ENGLISH: OK.

INSKEEP: I'd like to try one, if I can. I've got a phone here...

Mr. ENGLISH: Sure, go ahead.

INSKEEP: ...and let's dial Apple Computer.

Mr. ENGLISH: OK.

(Soundbite of dial tone; telephone being dialed)

INSKEEP: And the instruction says hit 0-0-0, lots of zeroes.

Unidentified Man #1: Welcome to the AppleCares service and support line.

INSKEEP: Zero-0-0.

Unidentified Man #1: Your entry was not understood.

INSKEEP: I'll do it again, 0-0-0.

Unidentified Man #1: For quality assurance purposes, your call may be monitored or recorded.

INSKEEP: There we go. That was quick and easy.

Mr. ENGLISH: That's great.

INSKEEP: Although, well, we're not there yet.

Mr. ENGLISH: It seemed like ...(unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #1: OK. And say the name of the product for which you want technical support.

INSKEEP: Operator.

That's the next thing on the cheat sheet, is to say `operator.'

Unidentified Man #1: Sorry, I didn't understand.

INSKEEP: Operator.

Unidentified Man #1: I can transfer you to a customer service representative. However, you'll be served faster if I can direct your call.

INSKEEP: It's arguing with me!

Operator!

Unidentified Man #1: Sorry, I didn't understand. Say the name of the Macintosh you're using...

INSKEEP: Oh, my gosh.

Unidentified Man #1: ...or say `help' to find out how to find the name.

INSKEEP: Operator.

Unidentified Man #1: I'll send you to someone who can direct your call to the right specialist.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #1: Hold on.

INSKEEP: OK. That wasn't too bad. Let's wait and see...

Unidentified Woman #3: Please wait.

INSKEEP: OK, I'll wait.

Unidentified Man #2: Thanks for calling Apple Computer. Please hold for the next available representative.

Mr. ENGLISH: I almost wonder if you met these people somewhere at a cocktail party, if someone came up and talked to you and if you recognized their voice, if people start throwing things at them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NIATA(ph): Good morning. Thank you for calling Apple. This is Niata. How may I direct your call?

INSKEEP: Good morning. I'm from National Public Radio. I'm calling for a story that we're doing and we're recording you. Is that OK?

NIATA: Sure.

INSKEEP: We just wanted to see how quickly we could get through.

NIATA: OK. What else could I help you with?

INSKEEP: I don't now. Where are you located?

NIATA: We're in Sacramento.

INSKEEP: When people call you there at Apple, do you sometimes get ahold of someone who says, `I'm so glad to get ahold of a human being, because I was so frustrated by that machine'?

NIATA: I believe that happens anywhere you call.

INSKEEP: Thank you very much for taking the time. I hope you have a good time out there in Sacramento.

NIATA: Bye.

INSKEEP: You know, I feel a little bad, Paul English. I suppose even as we were making these phone calls, there were 25 other people holding, waiting for their turn.

Mr. ENGLISH: Occasionally, someone will e-mail me and say, `I'm actually a back-end customer service rep for Best Buy, and I hate that by the time people get to me, they're very angry, because they've spent so much time on hold, and I would like to tell you the secret way they can get to me directly, but don't tell anyone that I'm the one that gave it to you.'

INSKEEP: Have you ever been investigated for leaks of classified information?

Mr. ENGLISH: Not yet.

INSKEEP: You've been getting some publicity for this, and the list has been up for a while. Have you noticed companies improving their defenses at all?

Mr. ENGLISH: You know, I have been surprised that this little cheat sheet has become quite so popular, and I think there have been over a million hits on it just in the last few months, but I hope that happens is when a company sees that people put this much energy into finding ways around their voice-mail system, I hope the company says, `Oh, my God, I had no idea we made it that difficult. Let's try to find a way to make it simpler.'

INSKEEP: Paul English has a cheat sheet of ways to get through corporate phone system menus and get to a human being, and you can find it by going to our Web site at npr.org. Paul, good talking to you.

Mr. ENGLISH: All right. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: And by the way, we wanted to find out if the cheat sheet was really that good, so two staffers here, very patient staffers, tested 15 other shortcuts on the Web site, and the average time it took to reach a human was 56 seconds.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #4: Hi. I'm not home right now, but if you want to leave a message, just start talking at the sound of the tone.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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