The Horrors Of Helpful Telephone Support

Customer Service ProblemsGreetings all. Oh my goodness. I had so much fun yesterday. I got to call the bank. And the telephone company. And the metro transit number. Oh yeah, good times. To make things easier, for the customer, large companies have instituted what they call Speech Recognition Systems. The problem with speech recognition systems, and follow me here, is that they don't recognize speech. Is this too much to ask? Am I reaching for the moon here? Apparently. Because it went something like this:

Speech Recognition Systems are one more way that large companies have discovered to give their customers worse service while simultaneously firing large numbers of employees. They are the latest incarnations of Voicemail, which apparently was considered too effective. I have a theory that Speech Recognition Systems are in fact designed to prevent customers from actually reaching anyone at the company, but perhaps they are just incredibly badly designed. The problem is that they don't recognize your accent if it's even a little out of the ordinary, 'ordinary' being defined, primarily, as what Jimmie Stewart sounded like in old Hitchcock movies.

That's just a guess, but it may in fact not be designed for anyone's accent. I have a relatively mild accent. I'm from the East Coast of Canada, which means that my accent is a mixture of British, Irish, Scottish and East Coast American, sort of what someone from Dublin would sound like if they were locked in a sensory deprivation chamber for 10 years and made to listen to old Areosmith albums. So it's strange, but not all that terrible, but the system doesn't even understand me. I live in Vancouver now. God help the, literally, millions of people who live here who are from China, Korea, Russia, Japan, Europe and South America. These poor people probably have a better chance of reaching Nirvana than of reaching customer support. Speech Recognition has turned a customer service call into a Dostoevsky novel: It's tragic, it takes forever to get through, and in the end you really feel like you want some Vodka. Here's a typical conversation:

"Hi! Thank you for calling Gigantic Impersonal Megacorp. I'm Sandy, the Speech Recognition System and I'll help you get where you want to go. First, tell me which language you want, English or French."

{I swear I've actually heard these things ask if I want service in French, in English.}

"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that. Can you say that again?"


"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that."

"English! English! English! English!"

"I heard that you want service in English, is that right?"


"Great, English. I'm going to say a list of options that are vague and difficult to understand and you can just say 'that one' when you hear the one that describes you. Customer service issues, Technical support assistance , General difficulties, Trouble getting life together, Unfortunate occurrence avoidance, speak with an agent..."

"Speak With An Agent!"

"I'm sorry, I don't speak Latvian. Can you repeat that?"


Do you have horror stories of customer service inflicted at the hands of large corporations? We'd love to hear from you. Our lines are open! Until next time, keep your pen on the page and press 9 for Swahili.

Steve Sharam

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I like the voice recognition

I like the voice recognition systems somewhat more than traditional "press 1 for X" touch-tone systems, if only because one or two profanities will get you connected straight to a person. It's a useful hack, but says a lot about the way the system works. I'm sure that, profanities or not, people are so sick of the automated system that they will treat the flesh-and-blood agent they finally get with about as much tact and human warmth you would treat a frustrating automaton with. Employee morale must be miserable.

useful hack for voice recognition

I have to second the profanity hack. I stumbled on it by accident after a frustrating 30 minutes of responding, circling around, and finally swearing repeatedly "give me a **** &&&& **** live person" but have used it successfully a couple of times since.

I'm hearing a lot of support for profanity

You guys may be on to something. My grandfather always said that if something isn't working, you just have to get mad, a process that I must admit that I have used, with mixed results.

Steve Sharam


Those are HORRIBLE. I hate it... I got new health insurance (again) at the beginning of this year... it took me ONE HOUR to get a human on the line. I swear I bounced in a circle... from one menu to the next which then dumped me back at the beginning.

I used to just press '0' repeatedly until a real person got on the line. They must have discovered the loop-hole and eliminated it. Even my phone company will ask what my problem is before it will put a person on the line.

I can imagine a room full of people laughing their asses off at the ongoing one way convo. "Please say your account number now"... while Jimmyjimjim is hitting the 'I'm sorry, I didn't understand that, could you please say your account number now' button... what better way to employ your wife's third cousin who didn't quite make it through college ? give him control over the Speech Recognition Switchboard of DOOOOOM for all incoming calls!

Best of luck to everyone who encounters these new forms of torture.

my artwork

It's me


I must be the one for whom the voice recognition systems are designed. I have never had any trouble with any of them. I've only met two or three, but they work. Heck, even my cell has voice recognition. It works great.

Sorry, you may now pelt me with leftover packaging from your latest office supply purchase.

I spent almost 10 years in Michigan, so I have slight northerner accent. Before that from Chicago, though I am remarkably free of 'da Bers', perhaps because I was in elementary school. I spent summers in Kansas growing up, lived in Ohio for some few years.. I must have a very bland midwestern accent by now, even though I've been in the Carolinas for 10 years.

If you'd like to hire me for your next customer service interaction, I'm sure we can come up with a mutually agreeable hourly rate. :)


Your mission: Find the Human Being

That is how I view these things because if I have to call, it is usually something NOT in the canned menus

"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

Francophone here

As a Francophone living in Ontario, I have to say that voice recognition systems are great! IFF you speak English with a French accent. If you speak English with no accent, they are horrible. You see, those people who designed them did think of the fact that Francophones will have an accent when they speak English (Canada having two official languages and all), and a fairly specific one at that. So when my husband, who speaks English like the lumberjack in Bugs Bunny, gets one of these voice recognition things, he gets what he wants in no time. Me, who has no accent whatsoever, gets stuck until I hang up or hand him the phone.

"It's better to be a pirate than to join the Navy." -- Steve Jobs

I agree...

I agree with all people on the accent thing. When in the grand 'ol U.S. of A recently (lovely place, btw) I had occasion to call North West Airlines three or four times. They have a fairly complex system (it was complex to me, at least) requiring you to say the flight number as well as your place of arrival and departure. With my dinky-di Aussie accent I managed perfectly - much to my surprise. It understood my "tooos", my "aytes" and my "fooors" and, most surprisingly, "Woshington". So, if you're ever stuck in the "I'm sorry, I don't understand" loop, make like Steve Irwin (God rest his soul) and throw in g'day or two.

[and just for the record, Australian's don't really say "G'day" to everyone as a general greeting and when Steve Irwin died most of us sat back and wondered why some in the US were going so crazy over it all]


G'Day:) Wow, what a collecting of problems. I hadn't thought of simply swearing at the computer, though it makes perfect sense, both in a soul-restoring sense and from the point of view that bad words are likely flagged in the computer as a sign that the customer is no longer ideally satisfied with their service:P

It sounds like it does work for some people, from Australians to Mid-Western transplants to French Canadians. Hmm, maybe I've been looking at this thing all wrong. I assumed that my accent was too strange...maybe it's not strange enough. Maybe I need to affect another accent entirely. I can't bring to mind what people from Chicago sound like, except old Al Capone movies, which probably isn't very helpful. Maybe Australian is the best way to go. The accent is certainly fun and they do speak some English in Australia, which makes it an easy foreign accent to duplicate:)

And just for the record, I'm not touching the Crock Hunter thing with a ten foot pole:S

Any other stories of woe or telephone hacks?

Steve Sharam



I have heard that in some systems you can say "Agent" repeatedly to get a live human. You might try other variants like "operator" and "human" and see if they work.


There's an online database listing technical support numbers for various companies, and what button sequence to push (or to say) to circumvent the computerVoice and actually get a person on the line.

You can find it at


Now we're cooking:)

Ha ha, now we're in business. Tell your friends!

Steve Sharam

And then there are the

And then there are the systems that you spend 15 - 30 minutes with, patiently answering all the questions, only to get to a place where you need to talk to a real live person, and that person asks you all the same questions --- I'm all for redundant systems, but not if I'm the one providing their redundancy.

I hate that:@

Brought to you by the Department Of Redundancy Department

Steve Sharam

I just hate the fact that

I just hate the fact that they make me feel like a trained dog. "Speak, customer, speak!"

Ha ha ha!

Sometimes they give you a treat if you do everything right:P

Steve Sharam

Beyond Frustrating

My worst and most frustrating experience with these systems was when I went through the maze of options and when I finally, FINALLY thought I was done, I was told that the hours of operation were something like 10 to 5 E.S.T and that I should try again later. CLICK! Now, is this not something they could mention at the beginning so people don't waste their time trying to get through to a real person? These systems are beyond frustrating. Oh, and trying to pick what best fits my needs from their menu options is part of the reason why, most of the time I need to speak to a real person; nothing seems to apply to me! It's sad when I'm actually SURPRISED when a REAL person answers a phone these days.

Best of luck to my fellow sufferers out there.


Maybe we should go back to smoke signals:P At least you need a real person to make those work.

Steve Sharam

Smoke signals

A great idea. I think maybe some companies are underestimating (or forgetting) the power of real human interaction and real customer service.

Your Call is VERY Important To Us...

I LOVE how some of these systems start out by telling you "Your call is very important to us...." I sure don't feel very important when I go through a maze of button-pushing at the end of which I end up having to hold another number of minutes only to be told by a real person that they're not the right person to help but that they can re-route me through another maze to a person who maybe, just maybe, can actually help me. Woe to us all.

Comic Strip

I have a comic strip on my desk that makes me giggle whenever I am "speaking to a machine" at work...

"I panicked and hung up! What kind of sick company has an actual PERSON answer their phone!"

nay nay

Comic Strip

I love that...too funny. If we can just keep a sense of humor about it, I think we may just stay sane!


Dial "1" for Help

This is a track from the Royal Canadian Air Farce's CD called FARCE ON A STICK

I heard it years ago on the Doctor Demento Show. I believe it appropriate to this discussion thread.

Real Audio Link

"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

True enough

That all true. Unfortunately my amc wont play that file, but I'm reminded of something George Carlin wrote one time. It was something like, "They say you get what you pay for. Actually, you get what they feel like giving you and soon that may not be anything at all." Be afraid citizens, be very afraid.

Steve Sharam

note to self

Cuss like never before~!

I'm actually looking forward to trying this~! LMAO I'm not big on profanity... never in a million years thought it would solve a problem for me ♥
my artwork

it's hopeless

I'm from Georgia, and I don't think they even understand my swear words.

Lisa P., who would like to speak to a real dayum person once in a while...


Ha ha, now THAT'S funny:)

Steve Sharam

Dang cussed vah-mints

You need to learn to curse like a Yankee so them new-fangled things will understand you :)
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)


Most of the systems I've used have worked just fine. There are some clunkers out there, usually from companies that don't get it and try to trap callers in the system so they don't have to talk to them. "Maybe if we stop talking to our customers they'll stop calling about their problems..." And not passing information to the agent from the automated system (whether it's touchtone or speech) is very frustrating. "Why did I punch in my account number and my phone number if you're just going to ask for it again?"

Finally... I'd rather try a speech system than wait on hold for even 10 mins. It's like using an ATM instead of waiting in line inside the bank.


Why did you ask...?

Hi Jeff.

The answer to "why did you ask for my account number if you're just going to ask for it again.." is "if you have to punch it in on the phone, that proves you have all the information the agent is going to need when you finally get one."


Yes, I know you think the automated phone system should display the account number on the Agent's computer screen, or better yet pull up the associated account history automatically for the Agent, but sorry to say most systems just aren't that cool. :/ Most systems don't have that slick an integration between the phone system and the computer records.


good ones ruining it for the slackers

It's the systems that ARE that cool that make the ones that aren't so laughable. Once I called a mortgage company that had a speech system which started off with, what can I help you with? (No list of options.) Startled, I said "Uhhh... I need my 2005 tax info." It said, "I think you're asking a question about tax reporting, is that right?" Then it asked me for my loan number, which I didn't have because it was an old mortgage, so it asked me my social security number, and it asked me to verify my street address. Then it passed me to an agent. The agent confirmed my identity by asking my name -- didn't repeat all the account questions, so the system must've been integrated with whatever the agent sees. (Then he basically explained to me that I was an idiot because I had refinanced with another mortgage company, my account was essentially closed, and my interest for 2005 was $0. Oops.)

Now compare that to my call to a cable company where I did the dance through their automated system, punched in three different strings of digits (account number, zip code, last four of SSN), chose account services, chose billing questions, waited on hold for 15 minutes to speak to an agent, who then asked me for my account number, my SSN...! Why make me jump through those hoops if you're not going to use the info?

These companies can't hide now. Other companies are doing a better job of handling calls, and it's raising the bar. Trapping customers in a time-wasting system doesn't cut it any more, and saying "Your call is very important to us" is like saying "we don't want your business, go away."



In some cases, pressing the

In some cases, pressing the 0 or * button repeatedly will get you to an operator so I usually try that first..


When I get these systems, I always repeat over and over, "I want to speak to an operator." I don't remember ever having to repeat it more than three times. Most of the time, the first time I've said it, I gotten a human.


Wow I hit a nerve here:P

Wow, I had no idea so many people were cheesed off about this, though I shouldn't be surprised. I definately think that most of these systems are designed by people who don't ever have to use them.

As for the phrase to get to talk to a real human, may I suggest paraphrasing the immortal Douglas Adams: "Computer, if you do not immediately connect me to an agent, I will head straight to your major data banks and reprogram you wth a very large axe."

Gotta go right to the source:P

Steve Sharam

New giggles from an old thread

While all my co-workers are sneaking out the door early for the long holiday weekend, I'm stuck at my desk waiting for a call from a client. Started browsing through old threads, ran across this one and nearly snorted coffee all over my keyboard. It's so nice to know I'm not the only (normally) mild mannered person who resorts to assorted, shall we say "colorful," descriptors when dealing with voice recognition systems! Must be the raised-in-Ohio-lack-of-an-accent curse.


found an old thread

I don't exactly know how I found this today. Especially after spending an hour for the 4th time in 2 months on an automated call center. My office got a new printer. For some reason it randomly likes to piss me off and get rid of the options I have pre-set a MILLION times. So I dutifully call the Tech support line for xx printer company, get routed to setting up a new service... again for the 4th time and in my frustration swear at both the computer and the printer, and magically I get transferred to a person! Granted they were in India, but they put me dutifully back on the automated call router, ask for the same crap again, and I still get stuck in "on hold" hell.

The other ladies in the office happened to be listening to me today on the phone. For the automated bits I was doing my best to speak clearly and slowly. When I got to a person I would go back to my normal cadence and speech pattern. All of a sudden the others in the office were laughing cause I would change back and forth so often.

Finding this today made me feel not quite such a fool. I am from the Midwest United States, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin are were I grew up. I currently live in the Carolinas, and have been for almost 10 years, so my accent is WAAY messed up. Even the people I work with don't always understand me. Even my parents complain about the drawl. Now I know the automated voice recognition thing is messed up. WE are ALL NORMAL. They don't understand anybody!