The smarter consumer: How to avoid being put on “hold” forever

By | August 29th, 2011

Tonya Davis of Rainham, England, was just trying to unfreeze her Internet connection when she phoned Virgin Media at 11 p.m. one evening.

Her call was routed to an overseas call center and disconnected several times. She went to sleep listening to “hold” music. When she woke up, the music was still playing, much to her amazement. She says Virgin answered the phone at 11 a.m. the next morning.

When she told a supervisor about her lengthy hold time, he responded, “Oh my God, seriously?”

(You can read the full story here.)

You’ve probably been there, too. Waiting … and waiting … and waiting. But what you might not realize is that the 800-number you call, often referred to as the “help” desk or the customer-service number, isn’t about help or service – it’s there primarily to persuade you to go away and accept the often substandard product you’re complaining about.

Here are some of the places you could go – and how to escape.

Phone tree purgatory
“Please listen to the entire message as our options have changed.” That’s always how it starts. It ends with you angrily jabbing “0” over and over, and finally hanging up. Phone trees serve a legitimate purpose, sorting calls by subject. But they also deflect millions of legitimate complaints a year. Customers simply give up and walk away. Fortunately, sites like and show you which buttons to push to avoid the robots.

Spending an eternity on hold
At peak call times, like lunchtime or after work, you can expect to spend an hour or more in a hold queue. Punching “zero” won’t help, and often sets you back to the beginning of the phone tree, where you have to start over. But there is a little-known shortcut, which a call center trainer who shall remain nameless recently shared with me. Most large companies offer a Spanish option — Para Español, marque dos. “Go ahead and press two,” says the insider. “At this point, you are transferred into Spanish-speaking queues for all departments within the organization you are calling. Just hit “0″ a few times and you will get a representative. They will answer in Spanish, just go ahead and start speaking in English with your problem.” Don’t tell the rep that you intentionally hit the Spanish option. The call center workers are all bilingual and the wait times are almost always shorter.

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Script-reading inferno
Scripts are a necessary part of call centers, because they guide representatives on how to deal with a problem. When there’s an issue they’ve never handled, an operator can turn to the PC and get step-by-step instructions. But overreliance on scripts can turn the call center worker into a reading robot – and they can drive you crazy. If an operator is repeating your questions, giving you answers that sound like questions, if there are pauses between answers or if it sounds as if you’re being read to, odds are you’re in script-reading inferno. Getting out is easy: Ask for that person’s supervisor. Not a supervisor, but that person’s supervisor. Chances are you’ll be transferred to someone who won’t read a script.

The rejection
The final insult, of course, is being turned down. Call center workers have a hundred ways to reject you, but their favorite one is saying “no” without actually saying it. Promising to “get back” to you on an issue or problem is a favorite tactic. At a large company, this deceptive maneuver is easy to pull off. After all, you’ll never find that particular operator again (reps usually offer only their first names and extensions, and only when asked). Escalating the call to the person’s manager may work, but it really depends on the grievance, the company and the manager. I wouldn’t put any money on a successful resolution, particularly if you’re asking for a refund.

Call center hell is just the first line of defense against your efforts to get a fair resolution to a problem, or even a simple answer to a question. Even if you make it past the phone tree, the lengthy “hold” time and an operator who reads from a script, you still may be turned down – or worse, given an uncertain answer or a vague promise of something.

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Companies hope your efforts will end there, but a determined customer will see this as just the beginning of the fight. Corporate America hopes you won’t fire up your computer and send it an email.

But that’s exactly what you have to do.

(Photo: nichola sjon/Flickr)

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