For Help Say 'Help ' ... But Hold the Accent

Automated Call Centers Don't Understand Me

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Laura Martinez Laura Martinez
If you think voice-automated customer service systems are stupid, frustrating and useless, let me tell you something: They are even worse for those of us who happen to have an accent. No joke.

I lost my wallet over the weekend. Somebody took it out of my purse while I was having lunch and trying to sort out news from advertising inserts in the Sunday Times. Upon realizing my loss ($6 in cash, a MetroCard, a NYC driver's license, some Catholic prayer cards and about a dozen credit cards), I knew I had to undergo the painful process of calling my credit providers and requesting a stop on each and every card.

It was Sunday night, so the chances of finding a human being were slim.

Aside from Citibank, which promptly put an operator on the phone, canceled my debit card and re-issued a new one on the spot, the rest of my providers directed me to voice-automated systems, which for some odd reason refused to understand my voice commands. Was it my accent? I wonder.

It began with HSBC, whose customer service hotline (in both English and Spanish) ditched me after a few futile attempts to have my card canceled with a voice command or the touch of a button. I had to act fast, so I moved on to Victoria's Secret, thinking that a company that issues a pink card called Angel would somehow offer me a friendlier, more feminine and gentle type of service.

A Victoria's Secret automated customer service "representative" greeted me with the usual set of options, none of which included reporting a stolen or lost card. I was ready to punch in a key (any key) for "service," "operator" or "more options." But the system didn't want me to punch in anything; I was supposed to "speak" my command.

-For operator, please say operator, a voice instructed me.
-Did you say 'order status'?
-No, I yelled. Operator! I hoped the yelling would expedite my request.
-Did you say catalog order?
-No. (Pause, heavy breathing). I. Said. Op-er-a-tor! (Truth be told, at this moment I wasn't speaking as much as I was yelling and banging the phone against the desk.)
-I'm sorry. I didn't understand your selection. Good-bye!
Good-bye? Great. At this point, somebody was doing some serious Christmas shopping with my Angel Card. After all, as I learned while on hold, the retailer boasts "dozens" of stores in the New York City area.

Things didn't improve much with Macy's, even though the retailer gave me the option to press buttons instead of "saying" things. Oh, and the options included an automated, voice-activated service in Spanish-language, which I refused simply because I couldn't bear the pain of being rejected by a machine that spoke my very same language (what if they don't get Mexican accents?)

"If you don't know your account number, please press the last four digits of your social security number," the voice instructed me, in English. I did. Alas, the system didn't recognize those numbers either. "Please, enter the last four digits of your social security number," an increasingly anxious machine told me again. I did -- twice.

"I am sorry. We do not seem to recognize your social security number. Please try again later. Good-bye."

Good-bye. Again.

In the end, I managed to cancel most of my cards on Monday afternoon, after reaching a human being and after some unauthorized charges found their way in. So it looks like I'll spend a great deal of my Christmas vacation disputing charges and signing affidavits.

Still, I want to believe it was all the fault of my slightly accented English, and that most of you, flawless English-speaking Americans have a fantastic customer experience with your automated customer service representatives. Do you?

I wonder.

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Read more from Laura daily at Mi Blog Es Tu Blog.
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