Falling Off the Phone Tree

Falling Off the Phone Tree

I’ve become pretty familiar with phone trees since I started providing phone captioning services for people with hearing disabilities about a year ago.

I’m sorry to report that a lot of our fellow citizens who use this service (provided free from the Federal government through phone service taxes) are falling off the phone tree many businesses use to reduce the number of live customer service agents—once a thriving industry in Arizona that’s being replaced by automation.

Phone trees are often programmed to force people to go online for their customer service needs, a problem for the many elderly captioning customers who can’t, or won’t go online for a myriad of reasons. For many, a phone is their main connection to the outside world.

I’m seeing two trends, neither of which are good for elderly Internet abstainers:

  • Long hold times interrupted with messages to visit a website
  • Complicated phone instructions requiring several inputs

Both include automated messages of varying speeds and at different volumes. This is definitely not senior-friendly.

The Phone Tree System: Internet or Else!

I’ve been amazed at the patience of people who remain on hold for a half hour or more in order to settle a problem with credit cards or bank accounts. In many cases they have no choice because they have trouble navigating business Internet sites or they don’t use the Internet at all.

Yes, such people exist and they still deserve to be served. Pushing everyone to use web-based solutions is not just short-sighted, it’s downright rude to those who may not be able to access the Internet or simply don’t understand it. Or who, like one of my clients, refuses to “learn computers” but still runs a thriving business as offline as possible. (I handle her Yelp and Google Business accounts–we both agreed they were too important to allow someone to infringe upon.)

Some phone trees are real hornets’ nests.

As I’ve said before, the first problem is that people speak much faster than they used to, and older people take longer to process information. Add in the inevitable two-second or so delay for people who read captions generated on their phones.

Customer-facing businesses need to understand that there are times when live, fluent customer service agents are necessary, even for the non-elderly or not-yet elderly. I know there are times when I opt for a live agent simply because the company’s online customer service process is so onerous it’s easier to put the phone on speaker and do something else while I’m on hold. I’m fairly savvy about the Internet so if I find a website to be burdensome, I can only imagine what it’s like for someone who retired around the time the Internet really took off.

Sometimes an older person will ask for something to be repeated, only to be put on hold, where they get helpful advice to “resolve the problem faster” by going online to visit:

“www.VERYLONGBUSINESSNAME.com/customercare and click on the Help Me tab at the top right-hand side of the page.”

A person who doesn’t want to go online, or can’t, may get an estimated wait time as long as 40 minutes. Seriously.

I’m glad to report that most people who do wait for a live agent are gracious to customer service, who are usually (but not always) polite as well, even if they have to be told to speak more slowly.

Some Phone Trees Force Callers to Distant Branches

Just as bad are phone trees that force extensive interaction with the phone. And again, much of the problem is with instructions spoken too fast plus extremely limited time for callers to respond.

I’ve been surprised myself when I’m about to respond to a phone prompt only to hear “invalid response” because I haven’t entered the information yet. I’m still pretty spry but sometimes I have to take off my glasses to read offscreen. This nanosecond of activity seems to take too long for some phone automation systems.

Now think of an older person (I’ve captioned for people living on their own who are in their 90s) who moves more slowly to take off his/her glasses or reach for a pair. Or who is reading captions. We do a pretty good job with accuracy; my own is around 97%, about average in the industry. I don’t think we’re not failing the customers, but the thing is, customers need more time to react to a prompt.

Not only are some waiting for a caption to come through, but their reading is also almost always interrupted by an “invalid input please try again” command that flusters them. So they either press zero for an operator to be put on a longish hold, or they just hang up.

Then there is poor-quality voice-recognition technology. Aging can affect a once-booming voice, but I’ve heard people quite clearly speak their account numbers only to be told, or interrupted before they finish, that “I did not understand you. Please try again.” If there’s a problem, put on a live agent on, preferably within a minute or two.

Calling the Doctor? Be Prepared to Memorize a Long List of “Options”

numbered buttons

Press one if you’re calling from a physician’s office…

Physician offices have long phone trees with a lot of  “options” to remember. Here’s a typical example:

  1. If you are a physician or calling from a physician’s office, press one.

Do their calls go to some special Bat phone that’s answered right away? Why do physician offices get priority anyway? Shouldn’t patients be the center of the medical universe?

2. If you are a pharmacist, press two.

3. If you are calling for a prescription refill, please hang up and contact your pharmacy.

4. If you are calling to schedule, change, or cancel an appointment, press three.

5. If you need to speak to a nurse, press four.

  • If you need to speak to Dr. Dre’s medical assistant, press 127594.
  • If you need to speak to Dr. Oz’s nurse, press 460367.
  • If you need to speak to Dr. Gupta’s PA, press, 9904523.

Actually, most doctors seem to have really long names captioning software doesn’t recognize. To continue:

6. If you are calling for a referral, press five.

7. If you are calling for a medical records release, please fax your request to 212-555-4593.

8. If you are calling to speak to our billing office, please hang up and dial 888-555-4529 and dial extension 460285.

9. To repeat these options, press six.

Is this really necessary? How about offering a short menu like “Patients and their representatives press one. All other calls press two” and go from there.

I’ve noticed men hang up more often than women.

Phone Trees Don’t Have to Be a Burden

I get it. Companies like automation and there probably is no going back. Going forward, more seniors will be perfectly fine using the web to schedule doctor appointments, check their financial statements, and order take-out. My teenager, who works for a pizza chain, tells me how much they hate answering the phone because it removes someone from the “make line” and phone orders often take several minutes. Online orders simply pop up a large order screen.

Too many phone trees expect too much from callers. If hiring someone to answer the phone isn’t an option, businesses that rely on this technology can make a few changes that make them easier to live with:

  • Drop the long-winded menus
  • Use the same voice throughout the menu
    • Slow down the tempo
    • Keep an even volume
  • Don’t bother with messages to entertain or inform people on hold. They sometimes confuse callers who think they’ve been connected to the sales office.  When a live person does pick up the line, the person waiting may not realize he’s no longer on hold! This sometimes results in the call being disconnected.

It’s OK to offer an online option to take care of customer service issues, but it should never feel like waiting for a live agent is some kind of punishment. Use a creative solution like an automated callback or a voicemail message that will be returned. Remember, seniors talk to each other about how they’re treated not only by their children, but by doctors, financial advisers (who usually have excellent phone skills), and the customer service they get from services as varied as credit cards and pay TV.


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Ruth Ann Monti is a writer for all things webby. She lives in sunny Scottsdale, AZ with her son.

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