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Don’t keep me hanging on a customer service line

Woman shouting into phone

Endless rounds of questions, followed by a message that ‘we’re experiencing a high number of calls and you might like to call back later’. Not the kind of service we want, but sadly the type we’ve come to expect.

Calling customer support is like a game of chance. Press one if you’re considering leaving us. Press two if you’re moving home. Press three if you’d like to discuss the different products we can offer you.

I’m often left a little stumped by the fact that all these options could apply to my call, so in haste I pick one at random. Then it’s on to another round of options, and then another, followed by a long wait to insipid musac.

And yet, when my call is finally answered, I still feel compelled to apologetically explain that I might’ve come through to the wrong department.

Hold on a minute – or eight

We’ve researched this subject a few times in recent years and found it’s quite normal for people to take longer than they’d like to get through to an actual person.

In 2008 we called customer helplines at broadband and utility companies and government agencies to find out how long callers had to wait to speak to someone. British Gas, AOL and DVLA kept people hanging on longest, with average waiting times of around three minutes. One call to AOL was held for over 15 minutes.

Then last year we found that the average wait to speak to someone on a broadband provider’s technical support line is 1 minute 33 seconds. That actually sounds pretty good in my experience, but then the average wait to talk to someone at Plusnet did come in at nearly eight minutes.

Put tougher targets in place

Wouldn’t those calls be so much more pleasant if calls were answered personally and directed through to the correct department immediately? It may sound too good to be true, but one foreign exchange broker, World First, has just announced a promise to do just that, answering with a human voice within three rings.

No, I’ve never heard of them either, so it’s not going to make the blindest bit of difference to my waiting times, but it does make me wonder why more companies can’t do the same – or at least put better policies in place to answering quicker.

Our own customer services team at Which? say it takes around a minute to get through our automated questions, but they aim to answer 80% of calls within 60 seconds after that. I wonder how many of the bigger organisations we have to deal with on a regular basis have similar targets?

I applaud World First, and almost wish I was a customer, but I won’t hold my breath for others to follow their lead. For now, clearer options and a commitment to answering calls quicker would go some way to making this caller happier as she waits.


Sometimes waiting is inevitable. Irritating nonetheless. I don’t like Virgin’s “I’m your best pal, let me get you some help, choose one of the following options” message either. But some will I guess.

Saying that I recently called to get a boiler repair quote and I was a little bit stressed anyway, but the “hold music” that came on was brilliant! A cheery 80s song that made me smile – I was actually enjoying listening while holding!!!!

Didn’t a company try a “press 1 to listen to this song while waiting”, “press 2 to listen to a different song while waiting” answer message? I can’t remember. Maybe I imagined it!

I’ve used Virgin’s help line a few times – never heard the message you mention – Generally when you get to a human operator – normally within a minute or so – The problem is dealt with quickly – except if you use non Microsoft software which is not in their “book of answers”. TV problem solving are virtually instantly solved with normally next day – or earlier – engineer visit.

I have had a couple of auto answer machines from other companies that simply let me hang on for a minute or so – then disconnect – most irritating.

The thing I really like about First Direct is their superb human answering system

It’s going off topic for this thread, but I agree entirely with the comment that helpline staff have a standard or generic script of answers and are flummoxed if you don’t fit their system. Post Office Home Phone and Post Office Smart Stamp are the worst examples that I personally deal with: in both cases not only their operators on their telephone help lines, but also their web based support service cannot cope with anything that is not Windows based, so getting assistance with Broadband or SmartStamp for a Mac user is utterly impossible. I’ve even had them try to tell me that I need to use Apple’s own support service to deal with Mac issues, though to give them credit I did once get a Glaswegian man who said he was a mac user himself and he had all the answers I needed in an instant.
I stopped using SMartSTamp in the end because of the lack of Mac support, but I’ve kept PO Broadband and Home Phone as it’s a great value deal and a faster connection than BT provided, even though it’s the same physical cables in use.

This is why I love First Direct – as per the comment above, they have a superb human answering system. I have left two financial institutions (Egg and Santander) as phoning them was too stressful. In Egg’s case, you had to talk to a voice recognition thing which never EVER understood anything I said, least of all my name, and I’d literally be screaming with frustration by the time I got through. I have moved almost all my finances to First Direct and their brilliant call centre was a massive factor in that decision.

I understand from BT that it is ILLEGAL for any telephone answering / menu system no to direct you to a human operator if you simply refuse to press anything or say anything for a maximum of three ” we didn’t understand your response, please try again” type of automated system messages. I understand that this is because there are still a tiny number of exchanges which are NOT touch-tone equipped and also a very small number of subscribers who still have dial or Loop Disconnect (i.e. not touch tone) instruments.

Ever since I found this out about 6 years ago, and my source is still known to me and tells me it is still the case, I simply wait for a human to answer every call I make. ON a small number of occasions, when there are more than 3 attempts to get me to press something, when I do get through to a human the firs thing I do is make them aware that I intent to report them to OfCOM for breaching this ruling.I can’t say that anyone (NatWest card centre being one I use quite often) has taken any notice of this and OfCOM don’t seem very interested beyond sending me standard letters saying “we will investigate your complaint”, but I’m sticking to my guns.

I have ceased to trade with 2 companies because the length of hold times and difficulty getting hold of a human were unacceptable every time I called. One was the Co-Op bank and one was GUS (catalogue shopping company).

I understand from some publications which I subscribe to that the latest “trend” in customer psychology is to make it easier to speak to a human, so perhaps sufficient damage has been done to enough companies for them to start to re-think.

I work for a college and we refuse point blank to have any automated system on our switchboard. We know that it would be far too damaging for our relationship with our students and their families.

Sophie Gilbert says:
13 December 2010

I don’t think it works with every system, but sometimes I have ignored the automaton’s instructions and pressed the # key several times in quick succession and got put straight through to a human very quickly. The human didn’t seem to be aware that I hadn’t gone through via the automated service first.

Yes, that’s a good call Sophie. I do the same thing – I press a random number that’s not mentioned and get put straight through to a human. I think they presume it’s people who don’t know what they’re doing and thus need more help. Instead, it’s because we just want to speak to a human being! I’d give it a go if you haven’t already…

For those calling LloydsTSB, something they don’t usually tell you but I found out a while back. If you phone up and say “ADVISOR” on the menu selection section you will automatically get transferred through to a customer service advisor. It usually takes between 1 and 2 minutes to get through apart from between the hours of 4 and 7pm when it tends to be around the 5 minutes mark.

It used to be an option to be transferred through straight away but when they changed it I complained and they said although it wasn’t mentioned as a selection any more it still was.

It is particularly infuriating when you have to call back several times and must go through the same rigmarole on each occasion. The annoyance is made even more extreme when there are several minutes of advertising or, in the case of insurance companies, notifications about answering all questions and being recorded.

One presumes that the companies are unconcerned by this inefficiency and waste as they make money regardless. And there is the additional irony of knowing that the more of your time they waste and the less efficient they are, the more income they receive.

Instead of recorded messages waffling about how important I am, these organisations might persuade me of the truth of these statements if they paid ME according the time I had to wait for service.

AOL is top of my list they take weeks to sort out problems and I can never understand their operatives.

Mark Williams says:
23 December 2010

I could go on about how much I loath call centres and telephone menus for hours but I’ll try to keep this short. One thing that particularly annoy me is centres that let you waste time navigating through their menus, only to tell you they are closed.

I recently had to call BT when they unilaterally decided to increase my direct debit for no reason only to find you can only /increase/ your direct debit through their automated service. The message gave another number to ring which eventually led me back to the same menu.

Then there’s the bank and credit card companies that get you to key in your long account number, your date of birth and other irrelevant information, only to ask you for it all again when you finally get through to a human.

Finally there’s those who tell you to look for an answer on their web site before phoning them. As if I would waste my time calling them if the answer was that easy to get!

Leo from Langtoft says:
10 January 2011

Try phining The Tribunals Service. I had to and my first call to the “GOVERNMENT” office on 0845 408 3500 took TEVELVE minutes, yes Twelve minutes, to speak to a operator which is a call centre based outside the UK. my call was then cut off. the, immediate, second call took a further TEN minutes to be answered and to be conected to the signatory on my letter. Two days later it took NINE minutes to again speak to the operator and the person I wished to speak to then REFUSED to take my call.
Many will remember that there was a debate in Parliament in 2010 as the GP’s had started to use these 0845 numbers. Both sides of the house agreed that Government Departments “MUST” show a national landline number to call and where there is a specific Officer named in any correspondence then that individuals natioonal landline number must be given.
So much for the “DIRECTIVE” of our Members of Parliament. The Government agencies are NOT giving the required numbers. I have no idea what the costs will be to the Tribunals Service call centre based outside the UK. What I do know is that had I been in posesion of a national ladline number i would not have been charged a single bean.
Government Employees are far too often protected by the use of 084.. numbers. Something needs to be done. I have complained to my MP and I recomend all others to do likewise if you are given these numbers to call. more so when you realise that the call centre is based outsioe the UK

The reason I left BT years ago was their appalling “help-line” did not usually answer and certainly did not solve the many problems. The final straw was about a series of reversed long distance charge calls that they insisted I incurred – As I was always at work at the time and the only residents were my three dogs it had to be their mistake – After two MONTHS of irritating unsuccessful calls – I told them to go for a run – sent a cheque for the other charges – and embraced Virgin. I’ve never regretted it.

Never had a voice recognition system fail me – but the gas company keeps sending me letters to update – like every other day.

Dawn McNaught says:
19 January 2011

following a motor accident on xmas eve have been trying to contact insurance underwriters on an 0845 number to find out what is to become of my car, repair or written off, Have tried 3 times today & forced to hold for 17mins,+ 25mins at 4p a minute on btlandline. CIS insurance underwriters for RAC, the courtesy car people are pushing me to know what is happening to the car and they have also tried CIS insurance for an answer to a simple question, they cant get thro either so are hassling me to make the phone calls (and pay for them). I would like to know who makes the profit from these calls? BT or the insurance underwriters? Have made complaint to RAC who were helpful but couldnt answer my question. Now What? Keep paying thro the nose?

james andkathy dobson says:
9 October 2014

Customer reference 90122298.(tel:0191-3853336. Ihave telephoned with the following query but did not get a satisfactory reply. Also none of the post office assistants I have asked could help me either. Hopefully you can. My telephone/broadband account is much too high….
what is specialised service I seem to use a lot of……
Telephone account is well itemised apart from specialised services.

Is the phone number anything to do with Gumtree?

Just hung up on Plusnet as yet again told I’d have to wait 30 minutes listening to loud distorted Pop Music, when I recieved a Debit notification twice the amount on my Bill ?

If you can’t answer the phone, not having an E-mail support option is quite unacceptable. I finally managed to locate the “Ticket” system – took me 13 months to find it.

How these people managed to get a recommended status for Customer Service beyond belief. I changed from BT due to their utter incompetence – out of the frying pan…………………………….

Plusnet, there a lots of people seeking jobs – it can’t take THAT long to train them to answer calls.
Yes, and I too am stuck in a Contact – the Telecoms sector is a disaster area Customer Service wise, and it’s about time OFCOM took a serious look at it!