How to Get Through to a Real Live Person - - Jackson, MS

On Hold With Corporate America

How to Get Through to a Real Live Person

By Staff

Sooner or later, most of us find ourselves in voicemail jail. It's that dark and lonely place created by endless routing, switching and transferring of phone calls.

The estimated 700,000 automated answering systems in this country -- almost five times as many as there were six years ago -- seem to annoy just about everyone.

Whether calling customer service or technical support, it's almost impossible to get someone on the line who will talk to you. There's no doubt voicemail is convenient, but in many cases it begs the question: "Convenient for whom?"

The Risks of Getting Impersonal
Voicemail systems and the frustration they trigger may seem inevitable, but consumers are fighting back against organizations that jeopardize customer service with improper or excessive use of voicemail systems.

In May 2000, Bank One shareholders blasted executives at their annual meeting for difficulties in getting a person on the phone when they call the Columbus, Ohio, bank.

In 1998, the country's sixth-largest bank, First Union Corp., rolled out its "Future Bank" concept.  Instead of help from tellers and branch managers, customers who visited bank branches were urged to go to cubicles and pick up a phone connected to the bank's customer service call centers.  Within a year, with revenues sagging, First Union bank did an about-face and scrapped the phone system.

Government agencies are getting the message, too.  In Maine, state Sen. Leo Kieffer (R) has proposed legislation prohibiting state employees from using voicemail during business hours.  Four other states are considering similar measures, and the Kentucky Statehouse just OK'd a bill requiring that initial calls to a state agency be answered by a real person. 

Double-edged sword
Nancy Friedman, the "Telephone Doctor," who consults for corporations around the country, says voicemail itself isn't the problem, or even the issue.

 "It's the dreaded automated attendant that most of us get fed up with," she says. "Voicemail systems are neither good nor bad, they are tools that, if used properly, can be the time-saving conveniences their manufacturers say they are.

"We either swear by it or swear at it," Friedman says of voicemail systems, "depending on how they're used." 

A marketing research survey conducted on behalf of Telephone Doctor to determine if phone courtesy affects sales indicated:

· 85% of consumers indicated that good telephone courtesy makes a difference when buying goods and services from a business.

· 65% stated that they are frustrated when immediately put on hold when calling businesses.

· 65% prefer doing business with companies who use live voices when answering calls versus companies using automated recordings.

· 48% refuse to do business with a company if they receive poor customer service over the phone.

· 45% are confident with a business if they receive courteous customer service.

Smarter Systems
While all indications are that voicemail is here to stay, the good news is that automated phone answering systems should become easier to use over the next few years as computer speech-recognition improves.

Automated operators are already in place at some companies. They take incoming calls, ''understand'' names and route callers to the right phone.

Bill Meisel, a speech-recognition analyst with the research firm TMA Associates, believes most businesses will have such auto-attendants within five years. But we're still many years away from any computerized system that can truly replace the human ear. 

When you call . . .

Be prepared. Leaving voice mail messages is like a performance.  University of Louisville psychologist Michael Cunningham suggests having a script ahead of time "so that when you walk on stage you'll know what your lines are." Include your full name, the time and date of your call, and what you need of the other party -- whether that's simply a return call or some specific action.

Consider these strategies for busting out of voicemail jail. Remember, though, that voice-mail systems vary and the same keypad commands may not work in all cases.

· You can often bypass automated attendants and go to a live operator by pressing 0.

· To skip a greeting and begin recording your message, try pressing the pound key (#).

· After leaving your message, try pressing star (*) or pound (#) to review or re- record your message.

· Speak slowly and distinctly, especially when leaving your name and phone number.

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