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 Consumers vs. automated customer service

Consumer Watch – Richard J. Dalton Jr.

Norma Freedman received notification in May that a movie from the Columbia House mail-order DVD company would be sent, but she didn’t receive the usual code used to cancel the order. So she did what many people would do: She called the company.

And, like many consumers calling a customer-service number, she reached an automated service that couldn’t resolve her problem and wouldn’t provide a agent.

That inability to reach a live representative is one of the top complaints of consumers calling customer-service centers, according to experts and surveys of the customer-service industry.

And the problem is becoming increasingly common as companies try to divert callers to their Web sites or provide more services via voice-response systems to save money, experts said.

“Making it hard to talk to an agent really hurts companies in their satisfaction ratings,” said Peter Leppik, co-founder and chief executive of Vocal Laboratories, a Minneapolis company that surveys people after customers place a service call. “But the reason why they do it is that talking to an agent is expensive and using automation is cheap.”

While touch-tone services, which prompt customers to press a button on a phone, can provide only a limited menu of services, companies are increasingly adding voice-response systems, which allow callers to respond verbally.

A recent study by Forrester Research, a market research company in Cambridge, Mass., found that 28 percent of companies have voice-response systems or are rolling them out, and 22 percent are evaluating such systems.

But customer-service calls to cellular phone companies handled by a computerized automated phone system receive significantly lower ratings than those handled by a live representative, according to a recent survey by J.D. Power and Associates, a Westlake Village, Calif., company that conducts market research and measures customer satisfaction.

Experts said good automated systems that have simple menus and allow customers to reach an agent receive good ratings from customers. But many systems have complicated menus, use industry jargon and require customers to enter information multiple times, only to repeat the information if they do reach a live agent, Leppik said.

So while voice-response systems can handle a large variety of queries, such as a change-of-address request, companies should still allow callers to reach a human, said Jonathan Brookner, director of certification programs for J.D. Power.

“It can be a devil or an angel, depending on how it’s used,” he said, adding that companies shouldn’t let customers “get trapped in a voice-response system that they can’t get out of.”

In June, Columbia House, part of Direct Group North America based in Manhattan, changed its policy, allowing those with an account number to reach a live representative, spokeswoman Paula Batson said.

“Columbia House is always seeking ways to improve communication with our customers,” she said.

Freedman, who said Columbia House resolved the problems with her DVD order, said she is pleased she’ll be able to speak to an agent in future calls.

St. Albans resident Elizabeth Gittens, 43, said automated services work fine for simple requests, such as checking a bank account balance. But after a truck recently knocked down telephone lines in front of her home, she said, Verizon’s automated system for phone repair didn’t provide assistance.

Heather Wilner, a spokeswoman for Verizon, said the automated system had recorded a repair request when Gittens initially called. Gittens said she wasn’t aware that the system actually processed her request. And after she reached a representative three days following the incident, Verizon fixed the service within two hours.

Michael Skudin, 63, a handyman in Levittown, said some companies make it especially difficult for customers to cancel a service via their automated service.

When he called to cancel Sprint Nextel cellular service within the 30-day cancellation period, he said, the automated service disconnected his call. Incredulous, Skudin tried twice more — and said he was disconnected both times.

“They have wonderful ways of not letting you get through to cancel their service,” Skudin said. “They’re very quick to say, ‘We’ll give you a contract and you have 30 days to change your mind,’ but they make it so aggravating \[to cancel\], some of these people will just say, ‘I’ll keep it. It’s not worth the effort.’”

Sprint spokesman Richard Pesce said, “We are continually working to improve customer service, so that we can quickly and effectively answer their questions, resolve issues and increase the value customers receive.”

Some Web sites have come to the rescue of frustrated consumers. One new service is 321calllog.com, which records conversations with customer-service representatives.

Carol Kelty, 56, an administrative assistant at Chimes Real Estate in Flushing, said she’d appreciate such a service. After she canceled DirecTV within the 30-day cancellation period, the company said she hadn’t done so, she said.

But Kelty had saved a copy of her e-mail request. When she faxed a printout of it, the company agreed to refund about $100 in fees, she said.

“I think it would probably be very useful for people who are in a jam,” she said of 321calllog.com. “If you don’t have proof that you canceled it or tried to cancel it, it’s your word against theirs.”

Another site, gethuman.com, indicates how callers can reach live representatives: by listing the digits to enter on a touch-tone phone, or the phrases the customer can say.

Some companies don’t make it easy. To reach a live representative at Humana’s pharmacy, gethuman.com instructs callers to provide an identification number that turns out to be invalid.

To get an agent at Northwest Airlines WorldPerks, callers must say “WorldPerks,” “agent,” “yes,” “agent” and another “yes,” according to gethuman.com. Some voice-response systems might not grant a request for an “operator” because the computer expects the caller to say “agent,” but customers might not know that’s the word they must use, said Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst at Forrester Research.

“I know one tricky company that, in order to get to an operator, you have to know to say ‘representative’ three times in a row,” she said. “Companies want to force you to use the automated service, but if the automated service cannot accommodate your specific needs, you should get an avenue out of there.”

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