My dear mother-in-law died about a year ago, and despite her best-laid plans to get her affairs in order before she passed, she didn’t quite manage it. That means I’m constantly on the phone these days with everyone from the IRS to attorneys to CPAs. And because everything bad happens at once, I’m also on the line with doctors for various family members.
Due to these endless calls, it seems like every day I’m dealing with one of the deepest circles of hell, the automated phone menu. You know what I mean — you call a number for help and you’re thrown into an endless loop of recorded messages that don’t assist you at all. I can’t even tell you how much time I’ve wasted stuck in this never-never land lately. Generally, the stress is already high for these calls — no one ever looks forward to calling the IRS, or a doctor. Being stuck in a phone menu reminds me of a state fair funhouse where you think you’ve found the way out but just keep slamming into walls, over and over again.
Some phones, like Google’s Pixel series, help you avoid these menus or even wait on hold for you, but there’s clearly room to improve these menus for everyone. Here’s how automated phone lines could make life easier for their callers.
We need a universal way to get to a live human
Maybe the most important thing: There needs to be a universally accepted way to reach a living, speaking human who actually can help. So many times, I listen carefully to all of the options and none of them fit my situation. I usually just start yelling “AGENT!” or “REPRESENTATIVE!” Sometimes I try “OPERATOR” because I’m old like that. I’m pretty sure I’ve tried yelling “PERSON!” or “HUMAN!” at least once.
I try pressing zero a lot, and sometimes that works to get me a real live person. But other times, the automated phone menu just plods forward, repeating useless options, giving me no way to even consider having a problem that’s not on its list. When that rare gem of a phone menu actually says, “press X to speak to an agent,” I just about kiss the ground.
‘Menu options have changed’
Don’t tell me to “please listen carefully, because our menu options may have changed.” I’m listening carefully anyway. I don’t care if the menu options have changed. Every automated phone message says this, and I wonder when those options actually did last change… three years ago? Companies are vastly overestimating how many people have memorized their phone options. Will anyone be completely shaken if it’s now “press 2 to renew your prescription” instead of “press 3”?
Yes, I know about your website
Automatic phone menus love to play recorded messages telling you to go to their website instead of calling. I’m Gen X, so even though I grew up making telephone calls, I’m perfectly capable of doing a lot of things online, from ordering pizzas to making hair appointments. I assure you, I do realize that in 2022, any company has a website. I have almost certainly visited said website. I am calling because there is literally no way that website can help me. I’ve tried. My situation is weird and unique to me, and there’s just no way the programmer of your website could have seen it coming. Sitting there while a calm recorded voice reprimands me for not using the website just turns my frustration level up to 11.
No, my call is not important to you
I’ve sat on automated phone menus for more than an hour before. It’s no fun. But what makes it worse is the blaring background music, especially if it’s the same three Christmas carols over and over. And even worse than repetitive, loud music is the kind of automated phone menu that just keeps repeating the same bland boilerplate message every 60 seconds. “Your call is very important to us…” I might’ve believed that the first few times, but by the 35th time I can only assume that everything in the world, including TV reruns, the football game last night, and where the receptionist is having lunch today, is much more important to you than my call.
Useful things phone menus could do to be better
Tell me the wait time
Let’s please have automated phone menus that tell you how long the expected wait is, thank you. Even though the IRS always tells me it’ll be an hour-plus, at least that’s something. Now I know I’ll likely have to shift this drudgery to another day, or that I should plug in my cell phone and put it on speaker while I wait and wait.
Let me control or silence the music
Once and only once, I reached an automated phone menu that told me how to shut off the recorded music if I preferred to wait in silence. It gave me an option! Freedom from endless yacht rock or bland classical music! I felt like I’d just busted out of the Bastille.
Call me back
Sometimes a phone menu says, “If you prefer not to wait, press X and leave your number, and we will call you back.” YES. This gives me my day back, and allows me to cross one thing off my list temporarily. I’ll happily get back to my real job, and shove the IRS or whoever to the back of my brain. Ball’s in their court now! Of course, companies that promise this, need to actually follow up and call me back.
Suggest a better time to call
Most automated phone menus seem to be written by someone who’s never had to call one. But occasionally, I’ll reach a phone menu that will actually tell me something useful, like “we are at our busiest on Mondays between 9 a.m. and noon ET.” That helps me make a decision about when to call back.
Give me your email address
We’ve already established that your website can rarely help me. But you know what might? An email address, where I can spell out the specifics of my problem, and you can read and forward it to the right department. Even if the email address is impersonal, just help@whatever, or claims@whatever… when I’m desperately stuck in an endless loop, anything that helps me feel like I’m making progress is a boon. Of course, only do this if you’re paying someone to actually read and respond to emails.
I know I’ll be stuck calling giant organizations for the foreseeable future. There’s no way around it in 2022. Automated phone menus are much-hated, but also probably necessary.
But can’t someone dig into these universal problems and make these systems better? I just want to speak to a human.