The State of Phone Support: Not Good

Phone SupportPhone support: it’s all around us. Even with the Internet being last decade’s next big thing, somehow we’re still on the phone when we need help. And how is it? Has there been innovation? Improvement? Hardly.

In my experience, not much has changed with phone support in terms of today versus, say, ten years ago. And I’d say that, on average, I’m on the phone for support almost weekly (at least multiple times a month). Other options are available, of course, like email or chat.

But email isn’t good enough because you have to wait at least hours, often days, for a response. I don’t think I’m alone by saying that I want (dare I say, need) many of my customer support issues to be addressed more quickly. And I’ve had varying degrees of success with chat. Even if it’s available (which it still isn’t widely, as a form of support), the rep on the other side is often handling half a dozen concurrent chats, which often makes the supposed “instant” of instant messaging less appealing.

So back to phone support: the hard-to-replace, one-on-one service that we’re all used to. It’s almost always available as an option and often is 24/7 (for many products I use, anyway). It deceptively feels like it’s the best option. But it’s all relative. This past week I had two different support phone calls, and they reminded of what still hasn’t changed:

Automated Phone Menus

Perhaps I’m alone on this one, but I’d say that over half of my support calls don’t fall into one of the predefined categories that I’m supposed to select via the options that are presented to me. But then, you often have to listen to all of them before pressing 0 (or whatever equivalent) works to get to an operator. And 0 itself is frequently disabled, meaning you have to pick something just to talk to someone who usually isn’t the right person.

Superfluous, Time Wasting Catch Phrases

How many times have you heard this message: “If you know your party’s extension, please dial it now.” But then, I wonder, why am I even hearing this? Maybe I’m missing out, but I don’t have personal support contacts for companies that sell their items at Best Buy (for example). Every time I hear this, I feel like the message is more like, “Are you a member of our secret club? If not, get ready to listen to your options and wait.”

Here’s another one: “Please listen carefully as our options have changed.” First of all, even if the options haven’t changed, it’s rarely the case that I have a choice to do anything but listen to them. And secondly, isn’t that message just a given? I mean, it’s like someone reminding me that the sun sets at night. I know already. I’m not sure what would be more surprising: a menu option that didn’t change or a day without a sunset.

My personal favorite is: “You can find out more information by checking out our website at www…” Where do they think I got their phone number from?! I’ve already been to their website, and despite my high hopes, no, the FAQ didn’t do it for me. For whatever reason, I often find myself with questions that don’t show up in FAQs.

And the big lie: “So that we can expedite your call, please select from the following options.” The funny thing is, it’s not expedited at all. Would a human on the line ever say, “So that I can expedite your call, I won’t listen to you and will instead list predefined categories that may or may not come close to your reason for calling. Whatever you do, don’t tell me what it is you need, I’m trying to expedite your call. Please listen to this list.”

Of course, the real reason for this method is “so that we can save money.” The truth is, though, that I’ve yet to go through a phone system that gets me to the right person faster than an operator can.


Both support calls I made this week had me enter in my account info or service tag number. The theory is that when the call gets given to the person who is to help me, that person will automatically have my account info up on their screen.

But in both cases? Not so simple. I key in 15 numbers or even get to say my account info (wow!) while the computer understands. Nifty, computers can understand voices now. Oh wait, when the live person got on the phone, I had to give my account info all over again (both times). I’m not sure why, but this happens time and time again.

No Accountability

What if the person refuses to help? Or you want the next level of service because you’ve called in before and want to skip the “rebooting you computer” or “resetting your router” step that you’ve already tried before calling? Nope. You’ve got to go through the same steps every time.

How hard would it be to retain useful information like this so that the next time I call in the person can say, “Oh, I see that you’ve called about your router three times in the past month and resetting it doesn’t solve the problem.” Everything is supposedly automated / stored / recorded. Why not use it? Keeping track of customers’ disappointments in this way would only help the situation.

And have you ever heard some iteration of “I’m sorry, that’s just something we can’t do for you.” You can, of course, ask for them to put someone on the phone who can do something for you (like a supervisor). But you’d just as soon have more luck pulling their teeth out through the phone. It doesn’t happen without a lot of time and effort.

So let me end with a question. I’m having a hard time finding a decent answer to this one, if it exists. Have there been any major improvements to phone support in the last ten years? If so, do tell. I personally can’t think of any. As far as I can tell, a lot of work is still needed, now more than ever.

*Update* Interestingly enough, the same day I write this TechCrunch makes an announcement about Fixya. It’s an online community that uses “crowd sourcing” to give anyone free tech support. I’m not sure how well it works, but I agree with what’s said in the first paragraph:

“Companies hate providing good tech support for their products because it is expensive. And consumers hate calling up tech support when they can’t get a gadget to work properly because they usually get the run-around.”

  • Paul Ellis

    Hilarious post Bob! Comcast recently took over my cable/internet service recently (ugh!) and it has been a train wreck. So I had to call them, and their system is really impressive. After making you wait 30 seconds for the system to “find a representative to help me” it would just tell me “I’m sorry all representatives are busy. Try calling later. (click)”

    Get this though, I wrote in a complaint on Comcast’s website about it, and (gasp) they actually called me about it. I wasn’t home, so I’ll have to call them back to see what they say.

  • Thanks, Paul. Whatever happens, you have to report on what type of phone system Comcast uses for the phone number they left you for people calling to complain about phone systems…

  • Paul Ellis

    Yeah, I’ll report back. The number they left is a local number, but it could still be redirected to a machine.

  • Adam Sorensen

    I love it, Bob.
    You are so right. Often I’ve wanted to reach through the phone lines and smack the person on the other end. Why can’t anything be done about this problem.

  • Adam, good to hear your voice here! My current conspiracy theory that answers the “why” question is that there’s a secret club made up of hundreds of the top consumer companies. They meet monthly to make sure no one is doing more than the others. They agreed long ago that they can compete on anything but phone support.

    But my theory breaks down, in that, it could be cheaper to fix these problems (it’s not hard, people!) than to finance a secret club.

  • Michelle Forstrom

    Ok, can I just say “Ditto!” to all you wrote! I have to deal with this on a daily basis practically and it’s nuts. The worst is the “phone support” that never has the option of dealing with a human being–then you’re just stuck.

    And who came up with the brilliant idea of speaking your choices or info into the phone while the computer tries to “understand” it over the dull roar of your childrden or other background noise.

    I do have to say, though, that nothing erases “finance charges”
    or gets the free-bees rolling your way like trying to cancel a credit card or service. My favorite line in that conversation would have to be “May I ask why you’re canceling this service?”

    “No, it’s just too personal.”

    Or if we’re Jerry Seinfeld we could always respond– “Spite. I don’t care for the salesman who sold it to me.”

  • Nice, Michelle. I definitely have experienced the “don’t go!” response when canceling. Funny too, how canceling is usually not the easiest option to find. It’s buried somewhere three levels into the right choice of options…

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  • I'm just finding you now–good to find you! (Do you remember me? Danielle's old roommate?) Anyway–yes, ditto–especially the “our options have change”–I had a temp job at a company and did some airline booking for a DVP and their line had that on it. Six months later, I came back to that temp job and the phone line had the same message. I wondered how long ago those options changed? Anyway, I would also add the language barrier I've too often run into even after I've gotten a real person on the line. They don't use colloquial American and since I'm not a computer guru, it's not at all helpful for me to have them tell me the specific real names of things when they want me to do something. I ranted a little about that on my blog in March, too, curiously enough:

  • Hi Heidi, nice to hear from you! And, yes, I definitely remember you…
    I love how blogging can keep me connected without me having to try very
    hard. Interesting points on your phone experiences… I'd love to read
    your rant. Feel free to drop a url in a comment or send me an email.

  • Hi Heidi, nice to hear from you! And, yes, I definitely remember you…
    I love how blogging can keep me connected without me having to try very
    hard. Interesting points on your phone experiences… I'd love to read
    your rant. Feel free to drop a url in a comment or send me an email.

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