10 Things We Hate About ISPs and Cable and Phone Companies

Her voice is urbane, saccharine-sweet, maternal. She is grateful that I telephoned; my call is important to her. I hate the sound of her voice.

It's the recorded voice you hear when you call your cable, telephone, or satellite TV company. I saw the owner of that voice on TV once, on a news show, recording her happy, reassuring, tranquil little messages in some voice-over booth in Burbank. A pretty mom, late thirties, tanned--exactly what you'd expect.

To me, her voice has come to represent everything that irks me about service providers. It's the first thing I hear after something goes wrong with my service, and I have to set off on the long march toward getting the problem fixed. Her voice is a bad omen, often foretelling protracted service outage, long consultations with bored/impatient/arrogant/not-so-bright phone reps, missed appointments, false promises, and strange charges on my bill. That's what this story is about.

Auto-Attendant Horror

You're usually not in a very good mood when you hear her, and your frustration is usually on the verge of getting worse as you begin your trek through menu options that are supposed to help you reach "the best person to assist you". Here's me talking to her:

"No. No. I want to speak to a person. A person. No. No. Agent...agent...agent...agent. Hello? Hello? Helloooooooo?? Agent. Agent. Agent. Agent. [sound of finger pounding on zero key]. Agent! Agent! Representative! Human! Human! Why you dirty #$@!&#$&!#!$%#!$%^$%@#@#$#$%@#@."

Some service providers empower the automated attendant to do a lot more than just field and redirect calls. Some arrange for her to do actual customer support. This is convenient for the service provider, but tough for you if your problem doesn't fit into any of the slots anticipated in the prerecorded script she uses.

Beth Morgan of Southern Pines, North Carolina, knows the drill: "She makes me go through all kinds of grief, such as turning my computer off and on, unplugging my cable modem, etc. Then she tells me she doesn't understand what I mean, and suggests we start over when I get so frustrated that I start screaming for help. When I finally do get to a live person, they make me do this all over again."

The auto-attendant also seems ready at the slightest slip-up to send you off to the company's online help pages (even when you're calling because you can't connect to the Internet!) or to dump you out of the system in some other way that doesn't cost the company time or money.

Only as a last resort, it seems, will the auto attendant lady put you through to a real human being--a rep, not a replicant. And even then, depending on your problem, the human being might set you off on a wild transfer-fest complete with exasperated agents and plenty of hold music.

The auto-attendant, the voice of the interactive voice response (IVR) systems used by service providers everywhere, hint at a larger, uglier truth: After the service provider has signed you up and begun tapping your bank account every month, the honeymoon is over; and the company would really rather not hear from you except in the form of that monthly electronic transfer of funds. That's because nine times out of ten, your call costs the service money. It's hardly surprising, then, that the IVR system seems intent on throwing up barriers to your effectively registering your complaint with a real person. It may even throw in the old "our menu has changed" message, in case you've memorized (poor you) the exact sequence of numbers needed to get through to a human rep quickly.

There is another way. I found a wonderful site called GetHuman that lists quick ways to bypass the IVR systems of about 900 US companies, including all major service providers. At AT&T Wireless, for example: "Press 0 at each prompt, ignoring messages."

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