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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 hate those voice recognition services too – like you, they never seem to understand what I’m saying! I bank with Smile, and although they have a bit at the start where you have to key in your details, they rarely take long to answer. This kind of service counts for a lot in my book, I’m sure if more companies put the effort in to answering quicker, more customers would stick around.


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…