An Insider’s Guide to Navigating Customer Service

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I have become something of an unwilling expert in navigating customer service channels. So much so that my mother has outsourced essentially all of her customer service dealings to me. It’s been many years since I was a member of the shared family phone plan, but I am still named on the account as someone who can make changes on my parents’ behalf. My private little joke is that I am the executor of the bill (I did not promise it was a good joke). I don’t mind—it’s the least I can do for the people who put up with me during my teenage angst years.

It is unfortunate that knowing how IVRs and chatbots tend to be programmed helps me circumvent them. I can’t help but imagine the hackers portrayed by Hollywood, expertly tapping on keys until declaring, “I’m in.” Only in my case it is way less cool, and getting “in” tends to be the first step in a multistep headache. This whole mess is exactly why companies like GetHuman exist—but even they don’t have the cheat code to every service line.

I’m not here to gatekeep. Behold my personal tactics to getting things done:

Self-serve and save yourself the headache. You’re going to have to listen to the IVR extolling the virtues of the online portal on repeat, so you might as well give it a shot before calling in. Sometimes—not often—companies will offer a direct route to human assistance if you get stuck when trying to do something yourself. This is the best-case scenario, congratulations!

Digital might be your best bet. Companies have been running phone-based customer service for eons, which has given them plenty of time to construct anti-customer defenses. Chat is seen as a cheaper alternative to voice, so companies may intentionally make it difficult to reach help over the phone. That’s certainly not a best practice, but it is a common practice. So give chat a try if they offer it.

Play nice with the robots (at first). Slamming zero or typing “agent” is a last-resort move. Many companies have (over)complicated routing logic tied to the decisions customers make in their automated systems. If you want to avoid getting transferred once you get to the first agent, it’s worth playing along—as painful as it might be—by selecting the option that best fits your request. Natural language systems might only offer human support after you’ve tried (and failed) a couple of times. So let it know what you’re after and brace yourself for some robotic variation on “Hmm, I’m not sure I can help with that.” Yeah, we know.

Maze with no escape? Let the games begin. If you find yourself stuck in an automated loop with seemingly no exit, it’s time to get crafty. You can now try hitting zero or saying “agent” (you might try other words like representative, supervisor, escalate). Some companies have deployed anti-customer techniques such as hanging up on you for using the IVR “incorrectly.” If you encounter these techniques, try again and consider the options. You’re looking for one that feels sales-adjacent; companies tend to answer if there’s a chance you’ll spend money. Once you’ve gotten to a person, you might need to play a little dumb. If you’ve ever gotten out of a speeding ticket (don’t judge), this is the time to deploy those same skills: “Oh gosh, you’re not the right person? I don’t remember what I pressed; the menu was so long. Can you help me get to the right team?” You’ll wait in a queue again, but it’ll (hopefully) be the right queue this time.

Companies wonder why customers are so quick to go to Twitter (uh, I mean X) to shout about their bad experiences—but a public audience to their customer service failures is one of the few things that incentivize companies to provide a genuine response. To quote a colleague that just went through the airline customer service gauntlet: “Why did that have to be SO hard.”

Why indeed?

Christina McAllister is senior analyst, Forrester Research, covering customer service and contact center technology, strategy, and operations.

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