Dial H for human

'The thing that I hate is that a lot of IVRs are designed poorly ... and, increasingly I'm making calls from my car phone,' he says. 'Please don't ask me to be punching buttons and menus for four minutes while I'm driving my car down the street. Just let me hit 0 and get to a human.'

"Just ... let ... me ... talk ... to ... a ... human ... being."

We've all spit those words through clenched teeth after a round of combat with some corporate behemoth's automated call center.

Paul English has done more than just spit; he's mustered up a way to help the rest of us break on through to the other side of those seemingly impenetrable communications barriers. Co-founder and CTO of travel-search site Kayak.com, English has posted on his personal Web site a cheat sheet for busting through interactive voice response (IVR) systems. A database that started with the keys to 10 company IVRs in March is now up to 108 entries and growing, as English allows for reader submissions.

Among the tips:

Want a Sprint/Nextel human? Press "0" fives times.

Capital One Visa? That'll also take five zeroes, plus the fortitude to ignore verbal prompts alleging that your entries are invalid. Be strong.

Delta Airlines? Say "agent" at the prompt... . Say it again at the next prompt ... And the next... . One more time. Don't forget to breathe in between.

The list includes a galling litany of variations on the theme, and it's been getting a ton of traffic, English says, especially after a front-page article recently in The Boston Globe. It even notes those companies that do well by their customers in terms of providing human contact, including a number that offer the option of dialing "0" - only once - to hear a real voice.

English isn't opposed to automation, per se.

"IVRs are great, and we should have them everywhere, but please let me get to a human if I really need to do it," English says.

When we spoke I posed to him the obvious devil's advocate question: If companies can make more money providing crappy/cheaper automated phone service than they can doing it well with humans, who's to say they're wrong to give us less than their best? The people who run these companies aren't stupid; they're simply motivated more by the bottom line than a desire to spare us irritation.

"You say the people who run these companies aren't stupid? That's not always the case," English says. "I don't mean to be flip, but what I would look at is which companies have incredibly strong brands and loyalty - where the customers come back, they spend more, and customer acquisition is low because people bring their friends. It's companies like Southwest Airlines and Nordstrom: You call them, and they answer."

English speaks now as the aggrieved consumer, but his qualms about IVRs also come through business experience. As former vice president of technology at Intuit, he helped with the design process for a 2,000-person call center in Tucson, Ariz.

"My team automated part of the software, so when you bought QuickBooks a lot of it would be done automatically that previously had been done over the phone," English says. "When [Intuit founder] Scott Cook, my boss, found out what I had done, he was pissed. He said, 'Paul, are you kidding? People buy QuickBooks because it's very stressful to try to set up a new business. If we have an opportunity to talk to them and make them feel comfortable and ease them through it, they'll be more successful, we'll form a better relationship with them and maybe we can sell them other stuff.' Scott had me totally rip it out... . I remember going through that experience: I didn't completely get it."

Unless you're a corporate bean counter, it's tough to argue with English, especially when he gets on a roll.

"The thing that I hate is that a lot of IVRs are designed poorly ... and, increasingly I'm making calls from my car phone," he says. "Please don't ask me to be punching buttons and menus for four minutes while I'm driving my car down the street. Just let me hit '0' and get to a human."

Of course, there is another option in that particular circumstance: Pull over before you make the call.

But, hey, let's not quibble. The guy's fighting the good fight here.

Suppose there's no getting around giving out the phone number after writing this kind of column: (508) 490-6471. The address is buzz@nww.com.

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