The Washington Post
Vanishing phone customer support is driving us all insane
Why won’t corporate America answer the phone? When I recently called an MRI facility about an overcharge, a prerecorded voice told me, over and over again for 45 minutes, that call volume was “unusually high” and, by the way, the weather was compounding a labor shortage. On another recent day, I needed to resolve a problem with a company with no listed phone number at all — which is how I found myself furiously pounding the keyboard in conversation with, yes, a chatbot at a vegan meal delivery service.
It shouldn’t be this hard to speak to a human. But, increasingly, companies large and small are making it difficult to access a real, live person when help is needed. Contact numbers are hard to find. Wait times to speak to an operator are long — one industry analyst estimated the average wait tripled from 2020 to 2022 and says he believes they still are a third worse than before the pandemic. Some phone lines are seemingly staffed entirely by robots, forcing you to go through menu after menu in quest of a live, real person. Or, increasingly, companies don’t offer a telephone option at all.
This is not simply inconvenient. It’s contemptuous. And consumers pay the price in emotional aggravation, in precious time and in literal money, as people give up on legitimate financial claims because they are unable to surmount the barriers in their way.
“It’s an absolute disaster,” says Abraham Seidmann, a professor of information systems at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. “It’s a major abdication of corporate responsibility.”
Companies say they are reducing options for human contact by popular demand. They claim customers often prefer a virtual option — so said Frontier Airlines after it recently ceased offering customers access to live phone agents, directing them to text, chatbot or email instead. But as the Wall Street Journal noted late last year, Frontier is simultaneously telling its investors that call centers are “expensive,” while use of chatbots eliminates the customer’s ability to negotiate.
There are nods to surveys showing millennials and Gen Zers prefer online contact. (Little wonder, since they’re naturally phone-shy, but it’s worth noting that they have also come of age in a world of dreadful phone service.) Employers also say that in the post-pandemic world, they can’t hire enough help.
All of this is, for the most part, excuse-making. If there are humans clamoring to end customer contact, it’s the ones in the c-suite, where the suits are happy to save a few pennies on call services at your expense.
“I don’t want to put nefarious intent in people’s mouths, but I’m positive that a lot of these companies looked at it and went, ‘Hey, our service levels went down [during the pandemic], and we didn’t lose customers over it, so let’s keep them a little lower. Let’s see how hard we can make this before they start pushing back,’” says Jeff Gallino, the chief technical officer at Callminer, an analytics firm.
A survey by Onepoll in 2021 found that more than two-thirds of respondents ranked speaking to a human representative as one of their preferred methods of interacting with a company, while 55 percent identified the ability to reach a human as the most important attribute a customer service department can possess. “When people are anxious or have problems, they really, really want to talk,” says Michelle Shell, a visiting assistant professor also at the Questrom school. “You need human contact.”
As for the claim they can’t find willing employees? Yes, turnover is traditionally high in the call center industry, and even higher in the wake of the Great Resignation. On the other hand, given that call centers are located around the globe, that’s quite the worker shortage.
What’s really going on here is a question of power. Increasingly, leverage belongs not to the customer paying the bills but to the company offering the needed service — sometimes one for which there is no competition. Foisting the work onto the consumer is a bet that the customer has no other options or won’t choose to exercise them. And often, that bet is a good one.
None of this to say is that it’s always necessary to speak to a human. It’s easy enough to make a restaurant reservation online. But we need a human touch when things go wrong. We want help, not to spend hours looking for a useful phone number for Facebook (in case you were wondering, it doesn’t exist) or navigating endless phone trees.
There are some models for better regulation. In 2018, for example, California passed legislation mandating that chatbots disclose when there isn’t a human on the other side of the conversation. But there is no pending legislation in Congress that demands companies offer a human point of contact.
The difficulty of reaching humans for customer support is an imposition on both our time and our finances, forcing us to spend what can be hours of labor — sometimes known as shadow work or a time tax — to resolve what should be simple problems. It’s one factor contributing to the sense that we as American consumers are fighting our battles alone, as so much prey for Big Business. And it’s not so unreasonable to say we deserve better than that.