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When angry customers call, a human may answer

Which annoys you most? The admonition "Listen carefully, as our options have changed"; the assertion "Your call is important to us"; or the line "Is there anything else I can help you with today?" when in fact, the agent didn't resolve the problem you called about in the first place?

Which annoys you most?

The admonition "Listen carefully, as our options have changed"; the assertion "Your call is important to us"; or the line "Is there anything


I can help you with today?" when in fact, the agent didn't resolve the problem you called about in the first place?

Write your answer on the back of a notice about your Internet provider's privacy policy, fold it carefully and put it in a glass that is half full - because it looks as if we're closing in on the end of the dreaded voice-mail maze.

A handful of big businesses are putting living, breathing, trained individuals back on the line. Others are cutting the number of buttons callers must press before reaching a human.

Many more are investing in technology that lets them pinpoint and correct key flaws that drive customers crazy.

Consumers are growing ever more bold about posting their negative experiences on the Internet - and business execs are paying attention to that, too.

Naysayers still insist business is inherently profit-driven and consumers will abandon their demands for quality service if it means saving a buck.

But Rich Honack, who teaches marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business, is optimistic.

"Customer service is not dead," he says, "It's just evolving."

Mona Shaw, a grandmother from Manassas, Va., reached her personal tipping point on a Monday afternoon in August.

Shaw had been trying to switch her telephone service from Verizon to Comcast, and in a moment of sheer frustration, the 75-year-old put a hammer in her purse and headed to a nearby Comcast office.

There she destroyed a keyboard, knocked over a computer monitor and was just short of bringing death to a deskset telephone when she was arrested for disorderly conduct.

"It's like they got you in their clutches, and they'll do what they damn well please," Shaw said in a subsequent interview.

No sooner had Shaw become a folk hero than Bob Garfield, Advertising Age magazine columnist and cohost of NPR's

On the Media

, launched his own jihad (as he calls it) with



Opinions expressed on the site are his, Garfield says, not those of Ad Age or NPR. And he is quick to note that Comcast isn't the only telecommunications mastodon.

"Sprint, Verizon . . . They all do badly."

But he see signs of success: "Comcast has been shamed into going onto my site and following up on those complaints. And as far as I can tell, they have resolved most of them."

"They may be a large, arrogant, blundering corporation, but they're not stupid," Garfield says, "They know they have a problem, and they're working on it."

Rick Germano, senior vice president for customer operations at Comcast nationally, says the company isn't all shook up by Garfield's schtick.

He says Comcast is changing.

It is among the companies investing in technology that allows supervisors to see, for example, whether telephone agents are too quick to miscategorize and transfer calls or if they are making schedules the delivery department can't keep up with.

The line, "This call may be monitored for quality assurance," used to be just a joke, says Yoel Goldenberg, a vice president at NICE Inc., one of the largest providers of such technology. "Companies really did not have an efficient way of monitoring calls."

Now, every call can be recorded and then searched by a keyword to find the number of times customers say "cancel my account" or how often they utter the name of a competitor.


software even shows (on a graph that resembles an electrocardiogram) when customers curse or raise their voices.

Companies are learning, Goldenberg says, to see customer service as a way to build sales.

No single industry can corner the market on customer complaints. Read 'em and weep at, where one after another, customers post complaints about air travel - gripes that make lost luggage look like a godsend. Imagine being stuck in your seat while your plane sits up to four hours on the tarmac before a two-hour flight.

Don't stop there.

Go to,,, or any one of the dozens of Web sites where customers can barely calm down long enough to put their frustrations into words.

But we're seeing more than a kvetch-fest.

At the Squeaky Wheel, consumers pay $5 to log a complaint but each time a complaint is logged - and every time it is viewed - e-mails are automatically sent to the company involved and posted on leading search engines. As a result of that negative exposure, says founder Jeff Harris, 30 percent of complaints are resolved.

"There's a revolution going on," Harris says. "Customers have much more power, more leverage today because of the power of the Internet."

We thought it would all come down to money.

IVR - interactive voice response systems, as they are known in the business - are cost-cutters.

Every Web-based contact or automated telephone interaction costs a company on average about 30 to 50 cents, says Brad Cleveland of the Incoming Call Management Institute, a training company based in Annapolis, Md.

Providing a live human on the customer-service line costs a minimum of $5.

And yet, he says, some firms are switching.

At, Paul English established a now-legendary searchable list of company phone numbers and the secrets to reaching their human telephone operators. He gives each company on his list a grade, A to F, with top marks going only to the few that answer their telephones directly.

At his day job, as founder of the travel-search engine, English sees to it that every call is answered by a person. It seems unlikely, he says, that it would be profitable or possible for 39 people to respond to 22 million e-mails or phone calls a month.

"It doesn't seem to make sense," English says, but talking to customers allows the company to identify issues quickly and to resolve them so fewer customers call with similar problems.

JetBlue and Southwest airlines have humans on the line. So does Angie's List. Even the global electronics giant Siemens returned to staffing its U.S. phone lines.

"People are so elated and surprised when we answer the phone," says spokeswoman Caroline Douglas.

"Money is not really the issue," she says. "We did this in response to customer feedback."

Still, Cleveland says, providing a human voice at the end of every line may not be necessary for all callers.

There is a generation gap when it comes to consumer expectations that will allow companies to tailor options for individuals.

Speed-seeking technophiles can push all the buttons they want without the perceived "aggravation" of having to deal with a person, while those who want just the opposite will get it faster.

"We all have customer service horror stories," Cleveland says. "But we're definitely moving in the right direction."