Monday, August 27, 2012

Why don't companies like answering the phone?

This article describes some of the clever, confounding ways that tech companies make it increasingly difficult to reach them by phone

While those of us who have to use a phone to do work will suffer a migraine just browsing this article I think the folks who run most big time phone service departments feel the exact opposite. I bet they're almost jealous of techies' refusal to talk to their customers. They probably wish they could do the same. After all, while phone service departments are ostensibly in the business of taking care of people, everything in how they're run—from hiding phone numbers on websites to automated answers to making it impossible to reach a human being—makes me think they don't see any business value in it. To them the tech industry is essentially at the avant garde of their silent dream: to be virtually unavailable.

To be fair, they want to be unavailable when you have a problem. If you're placing an order that's a different story. They'll answer the phone—after you wait. Nearly every company with a call center puts you in a queue to wait before they answer. I never knew why. Until I had a call center.

When I started Zingerman's Mail Order we had two ten dollar phones and an answering machine. When the phone rang we answered it. We kept the second line free so if we were busy the call would "hunt" to the second line and go to voice mail—I mean the answering machine. Voice mail came later.

We knew we weren't doing right by our customers. They couldn't wait on hold for us to answer. If we were on the other line or out getting a coffee they had to leave a message. Then they had to wait till we called them back. When we could finally afford it we "upgraded," as they say. We got a phone system. It could allow people to wait. Unfortunately, you had to wait whether you wanted to or not.

With the new system, when the phone rang my recorded message answered it. Even if there were three people twiddling their thumbs waiting to answer phones the recording answered first. If you knew your way through the maze you could press 2 to bypass the message and get your call answered. But most people didn't. They waited. At a minimum they waited 25 seconds through my welcome message and the list of options before the system let the phone ring to reach a human.

After we bought this "upgrade" we asked if there was some way to bypass the queue. We asked, "Can't we just have our crew answer the phone if they're free and only use the queue when we're all busy?" The first answer we got was, "No one does that." After being persistent the answer we got was, "No, you can't." There are often questions you wish you asked before you signed a check.

Phone systems are usually sold under contract. As soon as ours was up we went looking for a replacement. We got it about a year ago. We asked the same question. "Can't we just have people answer the phone if they're free and only use the queue when we're all busy?"The first answer we got was, "No one does that." But to their credit they did their homework and came back and said, "Yes, you can." So we bought it.

We started the process of figuring how to get rid of the queue in March. It took five months. We launched last week. Now when the phone rings we answer it. Most of the time. If everyone is on the phone the call goes to the queue. Sometime during the first day I check how often that happened. We had eighteen calls at that point. Two went to the queue. Nearly 90% were answered on the first ring. Now, it's worth noting we get a couple of hundred thousand phone calls a year. If we can keep that percentage up it means, in the next twelve months, at 25 seconds a pop, we'll collectively save the human race fourteen hundred hours of waiting. 

Here's to small steps backwards.

Big hat tip goes to Jackie and Joe and everyone else who helped make this happen.

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