/ Technology

How do you beat the call centre?


Calling my broadband provider to cancel should’ve been simple. Yet, after weaving my way through a maze of automated options, I started to think there must be an easier way. How do you beat automated systems?

Working your way through a customer service line can be a painfully lengthy process. Every turn you take seems to lead you deeper into the automated system, with no sight of how many more layers of options lie ahead, and no suggestion of when you’ll get to speak to a real person.

Not only is this process time consuming, but as you may be calling a premium rate number, all the drawn-out options could rack up a hefty phone bill!

How to get through to a human when calling companies

Until quite recently my parents had a phone with a rotary dial. This meant they couldn’t follow the icy commands of the automated robots by ‘pressing 1 for billing options’. Subsequently, by remaining silent, they’d eventually be put through to an adviser. I thought it was worth giving this method a try. Unfortunately my broadband company decided it couldn’t help me if I wouldn’t select an option and the automated voice ended the call rather unapologetically.

And it’s not just a pain when calling telecoms companies. Last year we talked about getting through to a real person when calling your bank and some of you offered up some tips, including Sophie Gilbert:

‘As soon as the robot has started its sentence, I press # repeatedly in order to flummox the system and I get told after a very short time that I have exceeded the number of attempts at entering my card number and that I will be put through to one of the humans.’

I’m sure there are many other ways to get fast-tracked through a call centre line to speak to an adviser. After my attempt at giving them the silent treatment failed, I’m curious as to how effective other methods might be.

So, what are your tried and tested methods to beat automated systems? How do you cut the time of the call and get to an adviser quickly?

If you share your call centre tips, tricks and experiences by Friday 26 April you’ll be entered into our competition to win a 16GB iPad mini! The more creative the comment, the better. We’ll mull over all of the entries and pick our favourite. Good luck!

[UPDATE] – The competition is now closed. Our winner is Louise, who shared her handy tips to beat automated phone systems. An iPad mini is winging its way over to her now!

Which? Conversation iPad mini Competition Terms and Conditions

1. To enter, you must add a comment with your call centre tips, tricks and experiences at http://whi.ch/Yxwy1j Please ensure you use an email address we can contact you on. All comments must be received by midnight Friday 26 April 2013 (the ‘Closing Date’).
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3. Entry limited to one per person.
4. Our judges will select the best entry from all comments by the Closing Date during the week commencing 29 April 2013 based on what we judge to be the best tips and tricks comment . The winner will then be announced here on www.whichconversation.co.uk. The winner will be contacted by email within 10 days of the name being drawn and the winner must claim their prize within 14 days. Failure to claim by this deadline may result in the prize being forfeited.
5. The prize is a UK 16GB iPad mini with wi-fi at a value of £269. No cash alternative is available. Which? reserves the right to substitute a prize of equivalent value at its absolute discretion.
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Holly Detre says:
22 April 2013

Having worked in two call centres I have noticed a few trends that won’t neccessarily help people beat the automated system, but may help you to get through quicker.

1. Some call centres only have one line as their agents are trained to deal with all types of calls; I used to be a technical advisor, customer service and a coffee specialist at the same company! So no matter which option you chose you would be placed in the same queue.

2. People will often wait until mid afternoon to call so as to avoid the peak call period. However, most people seem to have this train of thought, meaning the assumed quiet period of early to mid afternoon is actually the busiest period in many call centres. Try calling at the times you would expect everyone else to call (8-10 for example)and you may find you have ten humans drumming their fingers on the desk waiting for a call.

3. Try not to phone10 minutes before the call centre closes. Sometimes the call centre staff will put themselves on busy (your calls wont get directed to their line) at this time, and do other tasks such as answering emails, so they don’t get stuck on the line when it’s clocking off time. However, the automated system will not register this so it will tell you that the agents are busy and to hold the line….you will be waiting until they come back to work the next day!

4. Both of the call centres I worked for had limits on how long customers should be kept waiting for a response by telephone and email. Although the response time limit is longer for emails, you can get on with things while you wait for a response.

5. Only call if you really need to. I lost count of the number of technical calls I received where people had simply not plugged in their coffee machines, or asked a question that was identical to one in the Q&A section of the website. I loved these calls as they were easily dealt with, but they wasted the callers time, and blocked the phone lines for people with more unique or urgent enquiries.

6. If you have an ongoing enquiry then ask the call centre operative to call you back on a certain day so you don’t have to go through the automated system numerous times. If people were polite and friendly I would ask them to tell me the most convenient time to call and go out of my way to call back on the day and time specified, and would do so until their issue was resolved.

hazel rigazio says:
22 April 2013

mine is not copied from the internet like some comments here.Mine is simple use the good old post and send a letter.

Steve Gray says:
22 April 2013

Having worked on an IT helpdesk many years ago, your best bet is to be patient, non-confrontational and funny. The person at the end of the line might be paid to deal with issues, they are certainly not paid to be dumped on though. I find, a calm measured approach followed by a pounce on the issue you want sorted works very well in crystallising the helpdesk agents mind.

If it’s an internal IT helpdesk, try bribery ;0)

We had one gentleman turn up every Monday morning with a huge box of chocolate bar seconds from a local factory.

We knew it was a ‘bribe’, he knew that we knew and so on.

He never actually got special treatment as he was switched on in IT matters and we shared the chocolate with everyone in the office but the point is still true.

Be nice. What goes around, comes around.

A A says:
22 April 2013

I am not someone who has the patience for call centres to be frank and I leave it to my husband to deal with! This is my tip! On a serious note though, I think it is helpful to remember that the staff are literally going by the rules that they have been given and so they work within the confines of that system. I think being patient, being clear and not getting too emotional definitely helps! I have sometimes found that there is a lack of consistency in the knowledge of the call handlers so if you call back, you can get through to someone who might be able to try something different to solve your issue.

Perhaps the best outcome I’ve had with call centres was my battle with a large UK telecoms firm. It taught me that with persistence you can usually get a policy ‘exception’, even from the most intransigent organisation.

The story begins when they cut me off. Yes, I had not in fact, paid the bill. However I had always previously paid it, though sometimes I waited until the red ‘your bill is overdue’ card arrived. This time no such card had arrived.

So on a quiet Friday afternoon I found myself on the phone to a call centre.

The first thing I discovered was that they had decided to stop sending the ‘red’ cards. No warning, they just did. They way I was told this, with no apology , nor any exceptions to the subsequent disconnections (note the plural !) rather annoyed me. “Right I thought, ‘not good enough’ !

So, keeping calm without raising my voice, I switched to my assertive voice, got out my pen and asked (amongst others) the following questions.

When and why was the ‘red card’ policy changed? Why was I not told? Who was I speaking to? Can I have a reference number? What is the name of your supervisor? Is this being recorded and can I have the record reference number? Would you mind if I made my own recording of the conversation ?

Not all the answers were forthcoming. For two hours I repeated the same questions until I got replies that satisfied me. Not once did I get angry, nor raise my voice.

In fact at one point ‘Kevin’ ( I now knew his name) asked me to stop shouting. I hadn’t, but now was the time to strike.

All through our conversation ‘Kevin’ had said,” just pay the reconnection charge and then challenge it when it appears on your next bill.” I simply asked that this be waived and my phone reconnected.

He said yes! So I carefully repeated back to him all the answers he had given me as well as confirmation that I would not have to pay the charge.

Then the bill arrived. Surprise, surprise, there was an additional figure. So I sent a cheque that did not include the extra amount, with a covering letter disputing that I needed to pay it, with all the info provided by Kevin. I waited until the cheque had cleared and once more found myself on the phone during a quiet Friday afternoon.

As soon as the phone was answered I carefully repeated all the info I had and that I had recorded the last conversation. As luck would have it, I then recognised the voice at the other end of the phone line. ‘… hello again Kevin’ I said.

For a full 30 seconds ( I timed it), the line was silent apart from background noise. Then I got ‘ I’m now transferring you to my supervisor’. After another 30 seconds I got to talk to Simon.

Simon was VERY helpful, especially when I mentioned the recording. He instantly apologised for the ‘mistake’, agreed to waive the fee and to confirm this in writing. Which, true to his word, he did.

Now I also happened to know that the chairman of the company was being subjected to a public question and answer session on TV the next day. I wonder if it helped ?

To summarise.

Get all the reference numbers you can.

Get the name of the person you are speaking to, the name of their supervisor and ask how to speak to them.

Be persistent until you get the information you want. Keep repeating the same questions. Do not be fobbed off if ‘they don’t do numbers’. This is not true.

State clearly what you want to happen. If they say no, ask why and also ask for specific details of how you can appeal this decision.

Record the conversation yourself, but ask them if this is OK. They can hardly refuse if they are recording it as well.

At the end of the conversation, repeat back EVERYTHING to the operator to agree the facts. Don’t let them close the call until you have done this.

When they don’t abide by an agreement, write a letter using a way of confirming they received it. A cheque is excellent for this as they are automatically processed for payment.

If you have to contact them again, ask for the same person, or even better ask for their supervisor by name.

Do not give up!

Finally, for long running problems I suggest a negotiation course. There are some very good ones available on the internet and it is astonishing how useful they can be.

Will Bailey says:
22 April 2013

Pressing either has, star or zero will almost always get you transferred to a real person immediately.

Joe says:
22 April 2013

My best tip is to call early in the morning as some call centres open earlier than others but usually you can get through without having to wait in long queues. Also any customer survey callbacks which are responded to with negative feedback are often followed up.

D Cooper says:
22 April 2013

The best tip for call centres/automated services is to always press the options for upgrading your product or buying extra products. I guarantee you will be put through to somebody almost immediately!


I like it, but you have to be sure that you will not AUTOMATICALLY be upgraded / buy the product ;0)

zoe says:
22 April 2013

I multi task by putting the phone on loud speaker so I can get on with something else and not waste time

As in the medieval days, when warring barons beseiged each others’ castles, on preparing for an encounter with a call-centre I find I have to gird myself up, reconnoitre the line of attack, assemble my ammunition, gather my armour and my shield, and advance cautiously in a gardant posture. Fear and loathing stir my pulse.

Having scaled the ramparts [to the plaintive cries of “all of our agents are busy . . .”], trudged through the swamp under cross-fire [“calls may be monitored for training purposes”], dashed zig-zag fashion through the planted obstacles [“press three to update your personal details”], lost my footing on the slippery banks of the moat [“how many spokes on your favourite umbrella and what is your cat’s middle name?”], and finally encountered a real person who appears to speak well and give welcome [the pouring of oil], you find this is just another defensive ploy. So as the drawbridge slowly rises [“I cannot get your details on my screen . . .”], the portcullis descends to the grind of rusty chains and muffled hoots [“your call is really important . . .”], the heavy gate of intransigence slams shut and the bolts are shot with a repetitive clang [“please replace the handset and try again . . .”]. Vexed but not yet vanquished I try again . . . and again . . . and again. Then ultimately in the depths of desperation I drive a morbid post through the portals of Which? Conversation. Satisfaction at last!.

Adele says:
22 April 2013

Those ones where they make you speak to an automated voice (say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘something else’). I can’t stand them; they never understand me. So I either stay silent or say ‘help’ to get through a person as quickly as possible.

Jean says:
23 April 2013

If you are unsuccessful on the published number – search for the head office number, call them and ask for their help.

Hayley Wakenshaw says:
23 April 2013

I always look the number up on http://www.saynoto0870.com/ first. (They have an app too, for Apple and Android. Search for 0870) Usually a company will have a landline number that will help you avoid the premium rate line. One of the best tricks is to use a number they reserve for calls from abroad. Hide your number before you call, and be thick skinned enough to get a telling off from the operator for not using the premium rate number. I’ve also found that for continuing cases, where you need to contact the company a lot, you can get the name and direct phone number of the person you need to deal with, if you are very nice to them. 😉

Ian Dowson says:
23 April 2013

Staying relaxed is the best way. Sometimes you tend to attack the first human voice you hear, blaming them for the reason your experiencing problems. Just remember that each new person you speak too doesn’t have all the answers, nor did they begin your problem. Focus on keeping cool and eventually, regardless of who you speak with, you will get the result you are after. If not, hunt them all down and eliminate them.

shona mackie says:
23 April 2013

I always if unsuccessfull with calling centre call I always try a more direct approach with a supervisor or above and most times have been happy

Mark says:
23 April 2013

Avoid the call centres altogether and call them out on Twitter instead, nothing like a bit of very public negative PR to get matters dealt with!

Guy says:
23 April 2013

A tip to keep the call charges down – I often go to the website of the company and you can often find a number to dial if calling from outside the UK. Works a treat for American Express and a few others I’ve tried. Saves dialing those chargeable 0870/0844 numbers

Daniel Mason says:
23 April 2013

Initially skip calling and mention the company on Twitter espcially if you have received bad service but be constructive. The company will usually direct messege back asking for a contact number and they will call you back as they dont want to risk being talked about in a negative way on the social network.

Cas Smith says:
23 April 2013

Before I call any company, I use the website http://www.saynoto0870.com/ the majority of times you will get a normal landline number form here rather than using the companies premium rate number they advertise. Additionally I have found usi these landline numbers, you get through to an adviser a lot quicker!

Andrew Halliwell says:
23 April 2013

I find the most annoying ones are the ones where you follow the maze of options only tun run into a “You can find this information on our webpage at http://www…..etc“. I DON’T WANT TO FIND INFORMATION I WANT TO TALK TO SOMEONE!

Really hate badly designed menu systems like that.