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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Here's an update for your pets. It appears that rat poison may have been the culprit in pet food that's suspected of killing at least 16 dogs and cats. Scientists found the poison in cans of wet pet food made by a Canada-based company, Menu foods. A week ago today, Menu Foods recalled 60 million containers of what it calls cuts and gravy style. That food is sold under 95 different brand names.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For pet owners it's confusing trying to figure out if their dogs or cats might have eaten one of the many tainted brands. Menu Foods directed pet owners to its Web site for information, and there's a toll-free number. For worried customers without Internet access, the phone can be the only avenue for information.

Well, we heard people were having a hard time getting through on the phone. We tried the toll-free number ourselves. In a span of several minutes and a about half a dozen calls, we got the following responses.

(Soundbite of busy signal)

(Soundbite of recorded phone message)

Unidentified Woman #1: All circuits are busy now. Please try your call later. 0923.

(Soundbite of recorded phone message)

Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you for calling the Menu Foods recall line. For recall information, please go to www.menufoods.com or hold for the next available agent.

NORRIS: Now, we did ultimately get through to a real person twice, but twice as often we failed. Sitting here with me now is Brad Cleveland. He's a call center management consultant, and he's the president of the International Customer Management Institute that's based in Annapolis, Maryland. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BRAD CLEVELAND (International Customer Management Institute): You're welcome. Good to be here.

NORRIS: Now, first of all, Brad, when you get that busy signal that we just heard, what's happening on the other end?

Mr. CLEVELAND: Well, there aren't enough circuits is the most likely situation. There can be a number of things, but that's typical. So if they have a hundred circuits and just use an easy number, and I'm sure there's more than that in this case, but a hundred circuits, and that 101st person attempts to get through, they're going to get a busy signal.

NORRIS: So that's the difference between actually getting the busy signal or getting through, but they're getting that awful recording that tells you that you're...

Mr. CLEVELAND: We're sorry, all of our customer service representatives, yeah. If they have - and again, just to use easy numbers, 10 people handling calls and 100 circuits, there are going to be 90 who are in queue.

NORRIS: And then there's that really awful message due to heavy call volume.

Mr. CLEVELAND: That's right, and...

NORRIS: Try back later.

Mr. CLEVELAND: ...if companies use that a little too much, there's some cynicism around now. You know, if, gee, if you've got really heavy call volumes, why don't you have unusually heavy levels of staff in place, is what callers tend to think.

NORRIS: Now, as we said, we did get through to Menu Foods a few times without having to wait. And these calls were all made within a short period of time. That's kind of surprising. You might expect to spend quite a bit of time waiting on hold. So what's happening? (Unintelligible) wait?

Mr. CLEVELAND: Yeah. Things can change so quickly and that could be a part of it. They come in spikes or waves, and it's easy enough to engineer if you, you know, have some scenarios and know what's going to happen. But the engineering can't be guesswork.

NORRIS: In the Internet age, some companies are cutting down on their capacity to answer customers' questions by phone and they're saying if you want information, please go to our Web site. If you're in a crisis mode with a recall like this, is that a smart idea or is it better to rely on a call center?

Mr. CLEVELAND: It's a great idea but there are some cross-currents. If you look it overall trends driving traffic to the Internet, which is a very smart thing to do - we need to use our self-service systems as much as we can within the realms of good customer service - but we're creating more knowledgeable customers. So if you take the financial industry, they know services and investments that are out there.

And they - when they contact the call center, have higher levels of questions, they need more knowledgeable agents. So the Internet today tends to grow traffic to call centers. But it's of a more complex nature.

NORRIS: Brad, thanks so much for coming in and talking to us.

Mr. CLEVELAND: Thank you.

NORRIS: Brad Cleveland is the president of the International Customer Management Institute. We did try to reach Menu Foods, the pet food company, for comment about its toll free number. It did not return our phone calls.

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