By ANNE KADET
Imagine a world where no caller is put on hold. Mothers could spend more time with their babies. Scientists could hang up the phone and cure cancer. And we'd all feel more relaxed. Not getting a human on the phone is a perennial top pick when consumers are surveyed about the worst daily annoyances.
For a time, it looked as if companies were on the verge of vanquishing hold times. They embraced a slew of self-serve options (Web FAQs, recorded messages) and communication alternatives (e-mail, live chat) that were supposed to reduce call volume. At the same time, they outsourced calls to Bangalore, which allowed them to hire four reps for the price of one in the U.S., says Jordy Leiser, CEO of StellaService, a service-ratings firm.
Alas, both efforts failed. The outsourcing trend fizzled when customers complained they couldn't understand the foreign accents. Call volume remains high, meanwhile, because customers still insist on talking to a live person, says Leiser. And that means many continue to face long hold times -- from the five-minute average at wireless companies to the 90-minute waits we endured from the airlines during Hurricane Irene.
Happily, such frustration has given rise to an intriguing work-around: free apps like FastCustomer and LucyPhone that wait on hold for you and ring you back when a rep gets on the line. My favorite, FastCustomer, offers a database of more than 3,000 companies, including Verizon and Bank of America. When you call one of these outfits using the app, it automatically navigates the phone tree and connects you directly to an agent.
I tried it with my health insurer, Aetna, whose voice-recognition system gets me contemplating hara-kiri. (Aetna says 85 percent of calls are answered within 30 seconds.) All I did was hit the app's "have someone call me" button. Three minutes later, my phone rang. "Hello, this is Aetna," said the caller. I felt a surge of power. It was as if I had summoned a magic genie who could look up my benefits records. I tried again with Time Warner Cable and J.Crew. Same results.
FastCustomer cofounder Steph Hay says the app is especially popular with folks calling airlines, wireless companies and cable companies. Phone reps like it too, because they deal with happier customers.
LucyPhone doesn't bypass the phone tree, but it offers a key feature. If you're put on hold, you can enter a short code on your keypad and hang up. The app calls you back when the rep gets back on the line. I tried this when a Macy's agent put me on hold to look up a return policy. More magic.
You might expect that this power reversal has companies seething, but some have come to embrace it. Akron, Ohio, firm Virtual Hold Technology says its client list includes 60 Fortune 500 companies that offer customers the option of getting a callback when hold times exceed two minutes -- half of callers choose the return call. It improves service, but it also helps trim the phone bill. Client Southwest Airlines says it saves more than 50 million toll minutes a year with its callback program.
So maybe we really have vanquished the enemy. LucyPhone cofounder Mike Oristian predicts that in five years, "waiting on hold will not exist." The next step: an app that turns script-reading phone reps into empathetic human beings empowered to make actual decisions. Maybe after Armageddon comes.