Shortcuts for Customer Service Phone Systems

NPR had an interesting interview with Paul English, who has a web site telling you how to get around those annoying computer operators at various customer service centers.

Phone Guide Is a Real Customer Service (NPR)

Entrepreneur Paul English has produced a “must have” for the modern consumer. It’s a guide to the customer service phone systems of major corporations. The big payoff? The guide tells you the quickest way to reach a human.

His website, IVR Cheat Sheet to Find a Human, is very bare bones but is arranged alphabetically by company and very easy to use. He explains,

I created the IVR Cheat Sheet to help you quickly get to a human when you are trying to call a company for service. (The term “IVR” stands for Interactive Voice Response, the fancy name for those annoying computers who answer most phones these days.)

Frustrated? How about when you call your phone company and they ask for your phone number? Or when your bank asks you to type in your credit card or ATM number, and then when you finally get a human on the phone, they ask you to tell them again. Hello, don’t I pay *you* guys money?

The problem with most big (dinosaur) companies (vs. young growing or big dynamic companies) is they hire non-strategic bean counters to try to save money. Guess what? If you don’t talk to your customers, they won’t be loyal to you, they won’t come back, they won’t recommend you to a friend, they won’t buy more products from you. Some companies have figured this out, and they have created wonderful products and services that customers love, and which allow those companies to make money. For example, Southwest Airlines and Nordstrom’s both have actual humans to answer their phones.

I have received a few emails from IVR companies, saying “the problems are companies who don’t deploy our systems correctly or who use our competitors products which are not as cool as our IVR products”. That is mostly a bunch of crap. The problem is the bean counters who don’t realize it is a good idea to actually speak with their customers. I realize it is sometimes faster to use an IVR but please give me the choice.

I wish all companies allowed me to always type “0” to get to a human immediately. Maybe it would tell me how many minutes it would take to wait, so I can then decide whether to go back to IVR or wait, or maybe hang up and try a competitor.

Increasingly, consumers are making phone calls while driving their cars. And you want to make that consumer keep typing into your IVR system? These IVR systems are particularly frustrating for senior citizens.

He offers the following Common Techniques to Bypass IVR Systems:

* Press 0 or 0# repeatedly, sometimes quickly, ignoring any “invalid entry” messags.
* Say “agent” or “representative” (or sometimes your favorite four letter word).
* Just hold, pretending you have only a rotary phone.
* Connect to sales; they always seem to answer quickly, then have them transfer you to the department you need.

I’ve actually done most of those regularly, with mixed success. The cheat cheats are company-specific and should work much better.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    Option #5:

    Let your service provider know they are selling in a free market, and you are not happy with the service provided. If/when you do not get a satisfactory response, take your business elsewhere.

    If you really are passionate about your experience, or even if you don’t want to switch companies, write a letter to an executive. They may be grateful enough to extend a discount on your next bill.

  2. Steven Plunk says:

    Now we need a cheat list for governmental organizations. Try calling the dmv or a county court and see what kind of wait times you get if not just a busy signal. That kind of help would be greatly appreciated since we can’t switch to a competitor.

  3. McGehee says:

    Try calling the dmv … and see what kind of wait times you get if not just a busy signal.

    I had that (busy signal) happen to me when I was trying to get a new title issued for my truck right after I bought it.

    So — in keeping with the second paragraph in LJD’s comment — I wrote to the governor.

    That fixed it.

  4. Herb says:

    Poor customer service is your first indication of a failing company. Look what happened to Compaq, HP, and now Dell is on the way down. All due to lousy customer service.

  5. Mathius says:

    This is a great service. Now we need a shortcut to U.S.-based CSRs. I told the Sallie Mae rep in India (or wherever) that I needed to speak with someone in the U.S., and they first transferred me to a foreign supervisor, who then trasferred me to the U.S. Quite a hastle, but saved me time in the long run.