Call it the Law of Robot Customer Service. As ever more companies adopt endlessly complicated automated telephone systems, ever more customers become ever more frazzled.
You know the symptoms (translations in parentheses):
"Your call is important to us, so please wait for the next available associate" (after three minutes the line goes dead, followed by a new robot voice saying, "If you want to make a call, hang up and dial again); or,
"Our menu has changed, so please listen carefully" (We're up to nine choices now); or,
"Please tell me in a few words what you are calling about" (No two- or three-word combination will be recognizable to the robovoice); or,
"Let me connect you to a Customer Service representative," followed by:
"All of our associates are busy assisting other customers" (She's on her coffee break); or,
"Please enter the special PIN that was assigned to you" (No it wasn't); or,
"I didn't understand the answer you entered" (That's because your engineers haven't figured out how to eliminate lapses in your message); or,
"Having trouble with your XYZ? Let's walk through the steps" (followed by a list of items, none of which is related to your question).
One guess as to why so many of these systems are over-complicated and suffer from blank spots and glitches is that their designers are not geared to customer service, but are attuned only to the mechanics of the gadgetry.
Some organizations have avoided driving customers up the wall, either with rigorous training of their personnel to give helpful service over the telephone or by means of a streamlined telephone system.
USAA, the big insurance company for current and former members of the armed services, is a good example of the first group. The robosystem asks only that you pick by number, the subject about which you are calling (e.g, "1" for auto insurance; "2" for home insurance). A service representative comes on the line quickly, answers questions cheerfully, and is respectful of the caller (and does not use the faux chumminess of addressing the caller by his/her first name).
Hertz is an example of the streamlined approach. It wasn't always this easy, but today you can dial their "800" number, book a rental car in a distant city, get the cost and your confirmation number all without human intervention and all within about three minutes.
On the horizon is a new form of Customer Service: fast response to Twitter messages. The Wall Street Journal reports that one woman, after being put on hold for 40 minutes by a Citibank representative, gave up and tweeted the bank in frustration. She got an immediate reply, "Send us your phone number and we'll call you right back." She did and he did.
Citibank is one of a small number of large companies that has trained a team of customer service representatives adept at working in social media. In this case the man fielded her questions and delivered the answers. Result: a satisfied customer.
Although media-savvy Customer Service is still a small percentage of the inquiries Citibank receives in a day, it is growing rapidly. Other large banks are beginning to adopt it, too.
Now, if only the eleventy-seven-thousand companies and organizations with poor telephone answering systems that seem designed to frustrate -- even infuriate -- customers would learn from this example that it doesn't have to be that way.