[Paleopsych] NYT: Customer Service: The Hunt for a Human
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Fri Jan 28 16:27:32 UTC 2005
Customer Service: The Hunt for a Human
NYT December 30, 2004
By KATIE HAFNER
TRY to reach customer service at Amazon.com to fix a
problem with an order and you will encounter one of the
most prominent and frustrating aspects of the Internet era:
a world devoid of humans. Not only is there no telephone
number on Amazon's Web site, but the company makes a point
of not including one. Instead, customers are asked to fill
out an online form and wait for a response.
"It's incredibly annoying," said Ellen Hobbs of Austin,
Tex., whose frustration has led her to publish Amazon.com's
customer support number at her own Web site
(clicheideas.com/amazon.htm). "They haven't invested the
kind of money in helping you solve problems as they have in
selling you things." In December alone, some 1,100 people
visited Ms. Hobbs's site.
Indeed, in the pursuit of customer service, the Sisyphean
challenge of making contact with a human defines the
automated age, and can sometimes feel like a full-time job.
"It's almost as if we're dealing with this ghostly
machine," said Lauren Weinstein, a telecommunications
consultant in Los Angeles who has made an avocation of
studying customer service. "You assume there are people
back there somewhere, but it's as if the whole purpose of
these systems isn't to provide customer service but to keep
the customer at arm's length."
Now, by punching or typing in a sequence of numbers, or by
speaking to a machine that has been programmed to
understand human speech, you can have access to information
previously impossible to obtain without a human - the
whereabouts of a package, for instance, or the balance of a
What is increasingly difficult to obtain, though, is the
actual human. "Unless you want to call a neighbor," said
Dorothy Meyer of Escondido, Calif. "You get them right
away." Then she thought better of it. "But then, you don't.
You get their answering machine."
Many consumers have developed any number of tricks for
reaching a sentient being. Mr. Weinstein and others have
discovered a number of techniques for outwitting the
automation to reach a human, especially when confronted
with the labyrinthine menus that accompany most phone-based
Most people, for instance, know to punch zero even when the
option isn't offered. And many a frustrated consumer has
learned to pretend to be one of the few remaining telephone
customers in possession of a rotary-dial phone.
"But a lot of people don't take it far enough," Mr.
Weinstein said. Sometimes, for instance, he said, automated
phone systems are programmed to ignore the first one, two
or three pushes of zero. "But if you push it again, and
then you do it again, then it goes through. That's fairly
Mr. Weinstein said he knew of one system where you had to
do it four times in a row. "Then it's like a jackpot in
Vegas - you say, 'Bingo.' "
Increasingly, it is the Internet that engenders the
frustration. Lou Garcia, president of the Society of
Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business, a group based
in Alexandria, Va., said that in a recent survey of 1,000
people about their experiences with customer service, the
society found that "at the top of the dislike list is that
they can't find a human."
And while calling a toll-free number is still the preferred
way to reach customer service, he said, his studies show
more and more people using the Web because they have no
"Each time we do one of these things we see a big uptick in
customers contacting the Internet," Mr. Garcia said. When
they do, as at Amazon.com, there is little, if any,
indication of how to get live assistance.
Rachael Flynn thought she was getting an early start on the
holidays when, a good two weeks before Christmas, she
clicked on a British Web site called Everything iPod
(everythingipod.co.uk) and ordered a radio transmitter for
her boyfriend's iPod.
But when her credit card was declined and Ms. Flynn tried
to get through to a customer-service representative, one
wall after another presented itself. She scoured the site
in vain for a telephone number or even an e-mail address.
"I was getting a bit panicky," said Ms. Flynn, who lives in
Cork, Ireland. "And when you're in a panic state you really
want to talk to a human being." Finally she found an online
customer-service form and filled it out, twice, just to be
safe. It took four days to get a personal response by
All ended well. The purchase went through, and the gift
arrived with a few days to spare. "But I never did get to a
human being," Ms. Flynn said.
As it turned out, the company had removed its telephone
number from the site last year because although the site
sells only accessories, people desperate for technical
support for their iPod had been calling for help.
"We had to withdraw all telephone support," a page on the
site says. "We were being used as a free technical support
line for the Apple iPod."
People had been driven to call because Apple's free
telephone support is generally limited to the first three
months of ownership. Also, if the volume of calls to the
Apple support line is too heavy, callers are redirected to
the Apple Web site. Another alternative, assuming the
geography works in your favor, is to visit an Apple store
and consult a technician.
Amazon sees no reason to apologize for its decision to
leave the customer-service phone number off its Web site.
"We've found that customers really do appreciate the
self-service features we've got," said Craig Berman, an
Not everyone agrees. An underground movement to publicize
Amazon's customer-service number, 800-201-7575, along with
other numbers for Amazon noted on Ms. Hobbs's site, has
spread across the Web. (A reporter's call to the number
this week produced a human within a few minutes, but only
after a recording suggested a visit to the Web site
EBay, another Internet giant, likewise has no
customer-service number listed on its site. Instead, like
Amazon, eBay asks its customers to fill out an online form,
and they receive a response in 24 to 48 hours, said Hani
Durzy, an eBay spokesman.
"We've worked to make sure customer support is dealing with
community issues as quickly and effectively as possible,
and this is the best system we've come up with," Mr. Durzy
said. (EBay does provide a phone number to a subset of its
power sellers who qualify for phone-based service.)
True desperation leads some enterprising consumers to look
up the name, address and phone number - often complete with
a contact name - under which a company's domain name is
registered on the Web, through the Whois lookup service.
Yet some companies, aware of this ploy, no longer provide
more than a minimum of information when registering a site.
"I noticed Amazon has taken off most of its references in
the Whois database," said Peter Flynn, Ms. Flynn's father
and a computer consultant in Cork.
Mr. Flynn occasionally goes a step farther, drilling into a
Web site's inner workings to look through the HTML code in
case contact information is revealed. But when he used
these various schemes to find a phone number for
everythingipod.co.uk, Mr. Flynn was stumped.
"It appears they don't want to be traced," he said. "A lot
of people want to do business on the Web only, and they
don't want people calling them."
Sometimes the pursuit of a human can require travel. When
planning a recent trip to Brazil, Randy Cook, an elementary
school teacher in Sonoma, Calif., went to the Web site of
the Consulate General of Brazil in San Francisco and
downloaded a visa application. When he wasn't sure how to
answer a question, he looked for a customer-service number
for the consulate in San Francisco.
"I listened to a message that gave a number to call to talk
to an actual person," he said. "So I tried this number and
received a scratchy-sounding message in Portuguese only,
which ended with an alternate number to call. But it went
by so fast and my Portuguese was so poor that I couldn't
So Mr. Cook took a day off work and made the hour drive to
San Francisco to go to the consulate in search of a person.
Mrs. Meyer, 82, remembers well the days, long before
touch-tone phones, when a customer-service phone number was
promptly answered by a person. A friendly person.
"The way it used to be, you'd ring the number up and a
person would pick it up and ask you, 'What can we do for
you?' " Mrs. Meyer said, as if describing life on Mars.
Yet she, too, is now victim to automation. Several months
ago, Mrs. Meyer's Amana refrigerator began to lose its
capacity to chill, a problem complicated by the fact that
the service contract was with someone besides Amana. Mrs.
Meyer spent hours at a time punching numbers into the
phone. "I dialed this number, then pushed that number, then
pushed this number again," she said.
Finally, once Mrs. Meyer got through, "a very, very nice
gentleman came out and fixed it," and all was well.
The same is true of Mrs. Meyer's medical prescriptions and
her banking service. "You never, never speak to a person,"
she said. "I have a lot of patience, but not that much."
Sometimes Mrs. Meyer's frustration reaches the point where
she simply starts speaking into the phone, human or no
human at the other end.
"I'll just talk to the phone, anyway," she said. "I say,
'I've already pushed this number.' Of course, you're just
talking to yourself. It's sad."
Mr. Garcia, from the consumer affairs group, said that he
planned to stick to his guns; that it was in a company's
best interests to make sure a customer could get through to
a person. "Because if they can solve your problem, the
chances are really high that you'll be a satisfied
customer," he said.
Mr. Garcia said his organization helped put out a consumer
resource handbook published by the General Services
Administration. The handbook, which includes a directory of
corporations, with many phone numbers for customer service,
along with e-mail and Web addresses, is available online at
Sometimes happy accidents occur. Phil Bernstein, of
Portland, Ore., a radio station advertising representative,
deals with many business owners who have set up elaborate
screening systems designed to limit a caller's access.
In the course of one memorable attempt, Mr. Bernstein
managed to get through to the president of a mattress
outlet. Usually when calling this number, Mr. Bernstein got
only as far as an assistant, who decided whether to put the
But one day he inadvertently hit the star key, which took
him to an automated company directory. It invited him to
spell his target's last name, and he was put straight
through. Mr. Bernstein could hardly believe his good
" 'Hi,' I said, 'It's Phil Bernstein with KEX Radio.' There
was a long pause and the president of the company asked,
'How did you get to me?'
"I explained about hitting the star key by mistake and
spelling his name in the company directory," Mr. Bernstein
said. "There was another pause, and then he said quietly,
'Don't ever do that again.' "
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