The Checkout

Just Try to Raise Your Voice

Companies that rely on call centers to interact with their customers, such as financial services firms or wireless carriers, think they have a fix for consumers sick of being trapped in soulless corporate phone trees: software that can detect when consumers are getting angry.

The software collects and organizes those calls for higher ups to study later.

You'd be surprised how many programmers it takes to recognize a four-letter word.
NICE Systems, a Rutherford, N.J.-based company, spent tens of millions of dollars developing algorithms to build "emotion detection" software, which measures a customer's baseline of emotion in the first five to 10 seconds of a phone call. From that point on in the conversation, if the customer's voice deviates from that baseline, measured against 26 different parameters, an alert will go off and a supervisor will know to step in.

However, most companies that use "speech analytics," as it's called, aren't using it to monitor calls in real time. They're using it after the calls have come in to search for patterns. That way they can figure out if you're just a lone whiner or part of a larger problem.

Many of the companies that are selling this technology already monitor customer service calls, as in "this call may be recorded for quality assurance." Believe it or not, even though they've been recording calls for years, they weren't in the habit of going back and analyzing more than small percentage of them until recently.

The technology sounds good. But will any of this actually make your life easier?

Remember AOL agent John who wouldn't let Vincent Ferrari cancel his AOL subscription?

Ferrari recorded five minutes of the call, in which Ferrari used the word "cancel" at least 21 times--to no avail. If John had been using "emotion detection" software, would he not have told Ferrari, "You are going to listen to me?"


Keith Dawson, editorial director of Call Center Magazine (yes, it exists) said John actually didn't do anything wrong. He was stuck enforcing a bad policy.

And that's where "speech analytics" and "emotion detection" reach their limit. If a company isn't willing to do anything about what its customers are saying, customers won't see a difference.

"Bad management is bad management," said customer relations management expert Donna Fluss.


Do you think you've talked to a call center that was using "emotion detection?" Would you want to?

By Annys Shin |  October 18, 2006; 7:00 AM ET Consumer News
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I know United Airlines doesn't use it. I was trying to get some information regarding a flight my wife was taking (online said it was on-time but not yet departed but the clock said it should have departed 20 minutes ago if it was on-time) and it took me forever to get a human. I heard "I'm sorry. I don't understand your request" from that automated voice so many times, I was ready to go postal.

First human I got said, "I'm sorry, that's an international flight. I'll transfer you to the international section." All I got was the voice-prompt hell again.

Posted by: Non-debtor | October 18, 2006 7:39 AM

Emotion detection systems seems to be used for after the fact analysis. Rather than improve customer service by giving companies data that would support changes and improvements in policies, they seem to use it to "outsmart" the customer. As the column says, bad management is bad management.

Posted by: David K | October 18, 2006 8:05 AM

By the time this fancy software gets used, it is too late. Then again any company using it simply did not care about the customer in the first place.

Posted by: Steve | October 18, 2006 8:10 AM

The best thing a call center can do is empower its employees to be able to actually help customers instead of taking down tickets and saying someone will get back to you. If they trained their employees well enough (and paid them), they might feel comfortable doing their jobs correctly, instead of worrying about getting in trouble.

The thing that makes me the most irate is when people don't understand my problem or can't do anything about it, so empowering employees by training and instilling confidence would probably lessen the volume of angry customers.

Posted by: kate | October 18, 2006 8:21 AM

Real customer service involves empathetic human to human communication and not the cyber shuffle experienced by most consumers today. No, I know that I have never talked to a call center that was using "emotion detection. No, I do not want to because I want at least the satisfaction of venting my spleen at a fellow human being when the anticipated consumer assistance brush off occurs. Pay attention here Verizon, Comcast, AirTran, Delta, Nissan, Nationwide, Wachovia, ...

Posted by: Service Lost | October 18, 2006 8:41 AM

What they really need is something to recognize by the force of my button pushing how angry I'm getting trying to navigate the automated directory. Is it any wonder how angry we are, considering we've probably spent 5 minutes just trying to get to the live rep?

Posted by: tallbear | October 18, 2006 8:50 AM

While I hate the automated systems, if they work, they are great.

I would rather be able to get my information/do my business never having to talk to a human if I could. If the system works and I'm able to get it done, great. If I try the system and I can't, give me an easy, quick route to a human.

Sure, there will be people who will punt and go right to the human but at least they do so happy and not after 5-10 minutes of BS. These people will like go to human no matter what. Others will try the automated system and either go away happy or go to a human happy (well, happier than spending 5-10 minutes in automated hell).

Posted by: Anonymous | October 18, 2006 9:00 AM

I'm a call center veteran. I've seen how companies have become overly reliant upon automated technology. Like all things, automation has its good points and bad points.

However, the premise of customer service is to provide a human aspect to the client calling into the business. Somehow businesses have forgotten that.

It's bad enough when you call a business you encounter an automated answer which herds you into a specific queue. Or worse, you have that voice-response automated system that is supposed to direct to you to a specific queue.

God help you if you don't use the correct phrase or word to get you where you're supposed to be. No wonder people get frustrated and are at their boiling point by the time they encounter a live body.

I think any executive or senior manager of a call center need to sit in a phone rep's shoes for a day so they can definitely find out how effective automated software is. This will allow them to tweak and correct problems, find out what policies don't make sense to customers, and such.

Hopefully, articles like this and customer complaints will cause companies to review their automation procedures and allow them to make the appropriate changes so they are more customer-friendly.

Posted by: Michael | October 18, 2006 11:00 AM

What's funny? No one thinks to look at the impossible hurdle these call mazes represent for people who use relay services to make a phone call (read: deaf and hard of hearing and speech impaired folks). It makes me laugh to hear this new software will try to detect emotion. I'll bet most relay call assistants do not ever raise their voices, so while the rest of you might get to yell your way out of hell, some will be left behind. I can type %^&*@# or sign (bleep) and the relay call assistant would most likely remain polite, translating my anger into "pretty please?" Haha. :-)

People who use relay get everything from a third party, so taking too long to transmit info results in some disconnected lines, and then you reach the occasional call center worker who has no idea what relay is and hangs up on you, repeatedly. I sympathize with those who feel rage building inside, enough to go postal. Believe me...

If I ever EVER found a company that used empowered front line reps, you bet your bottom dollar I'd be a loyal customer for life.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | October 18, 2006 12:17 PM

This does not need to be an expensve, sophisticated high tech process. Companies could save a bundle on programming costs if they'd standardize on syntax to escalate a call. Recognition of a single word would do it. For example, if I could get a supervisor on the line by yelling "Moron" early and often when trapped in the maws of a brain free call center I'd be tickled, and it would relieve some of my frustration. It's a twofer, what more could you ask for?

Posted by: Cliff | October 18, 2006 12:49 PM

The bottom line is that companies are trying to place their calls into nice neat categories. Well, life doesn't work that way and sometimes a problem consists of multiple issues.

Take heed BEST BUY, you lost a thousands of dollars of my business becuase your call center couldn't handle an issue regarding a $12 dollar item.

On the other hand, kudos to AMERICAN EXPRESS whose reps have been given the power to quickly resolve any issues that have arisen with their services.

Posted by: Nick | October 18, 2006 12:51 PM

Like you mentioned in the article, most companies are usin this technology AFTER you have completed your call, however it turned out. Somebody somewhere sometime may review the conversation and come to the conclusion that the customer was right (OMG!) but it's too late then. Maybe the call was the straw that broke the camels back and they left the company to another company that promises good customer service (like that will ever happen).

What they need is real-time emotion monitoring with quick escalation to a manager. But that probably won't happen any time soon.

Posted by: CA guy | October 18, 2006 12:51 PM

Whenever I don't want to go through a million prompts, I hit "zero" to talk to a live operator, however more & more companies are disabling that feature & you get "That is not an option I recognize". Now I also tried just staying on the line because my parents still have rotary dial but they just disconnect you because you didn't enter anything. Stupid %%#@(%*!!#@

Posted by: Alan | October 18, 2006 1:09 PM

Like you mentioned in the article, most companies are usin this technology AFTER you have completed your call, however it turned out. Somebody somewhere sometime may review the conversation and come to the conclusion that the customer was right (OMG!) but it's too late then. Maybe the call was the straw that broke the camels back and they left the company to another company that promises good customer service (like that will ever happen).

What they need is real-time emotion monitoring with quick escalation to a manager. But that probably won't happen any time soon.

Posted by: CA guy | October 18, 2006 1:11 PM

"Keith Dawson, editorial director of Call Center Magazine (yes, it exists) said John actually didn't do anything wrong. He was stuck enforcing a bad policy."

So that means that a cop who refuses to get a lawyer when an arrested person asks for one, is just "enforcing bad policy."

Fortunately, the courts are not run by U. S. business managers.

Sorry Keith, ethically, AOL John (not just AOL) was just as wrong as the cop.

Posted by: Yeah, Right! | October 18, 2006 1:34 PM

This has been posted here before, but the website ( posts the various means to reach a human operator for many companies. It's handiness is unmeasurable.

Posted by: JB | October 18, 2006 2:09 PM

There's a great online database that has tricks and buttonmashing combinations for you to get out of voice prompt hell and actually talk to a person:

Posted by: Get a Human | October 18, 2006 2:10 PM

Oops, JB and I posted at the exact same moment, I guess.

Posted by: Get a Human | October 18, 2006 2:28 PM

Funny thing, with simple application of the Golden Rule, I have almost entirely managed to avoid frustration with call-centers (and, in the course of my job, I do have to deal with them a lot).

Always, always be polite to the personnel answering the phone. They aren't the cause of your frustration, they are simply someone in a low-paying job looking at a computer screen of information. I have been told (after an almost hour-long exchange, including more than half of it as pure wait-time), that I was the "friendliest caller I have ever had, and I am so sorry about the trouble". Oh, and that wait-time? That was her calling other offices to help resolve the issues.

Other anecdotes abound, including having call-center personnel for one hotel chain look up the information on a competitor and re-direct my call there when they were fully booked up.

Simply put, those low-level employees have a lot of power in their hands, and a lot of institutional knowledge. If you step down for a minute, and just be a little polite (simple pleases and thank you's seem to work wonders), it is amazing the change in results which you can see.

And, y'know? I just listened to that AOL recording, and John didn't sound that bad to me. The caller, rather, sounded pushy from the outset. He was looking for a confrontation (read his web-page, it's pretty clear, even if his 'forethought' to record the call doesn't reveal anything...), and he didn't get too much of one. I was actually surprised, after he said that John was "pissing me off", that John maintained his professionalism as well as he did.

Y'know, it's not easy to work at minimum wage (and I don't). And it's very easy for people to take a condescending approach to people who do have to work at that level. But, when we all step back, take a deep breath, and just smile into that telephone, rather than venting our frustration on some nameless individual who is not the personal cause of our troubles, things seem to work their way out.

And the best part? When you make some nameless person on the phone smile, then you really do feel better about yourself. I have almost never left one of these calls not feeling better about my day.

Posted by: Castor Troy | October 18, 2006 2:30 PM

What a load of crap! I wish I could meet the people that bought this software. I have a bridge for sale!

Posted by: PC | October 18, 2006 2:33 PM

So they spent millons upon millons of dollars to find out when customers were getting angry? Wouldn't it have just been easier to hire a person to answer the phone? Hmmmm there's a head scratcher for ya.

Posted by: Melissa | October 18, 2006 3:20 PM

Washington Gas always keeps you on hold for 20 or more minutes because of "heavy call volume" -- at any time of the day or night. After my last call, when they asked for my evaluation of the experience, I gave the worst possible rating on all 5 questions. My next call to them was answered by a person on the 3rd ring. Coincidence? I doubt it.

Posted by: Lynn | October 18, 2006 4:02 PM

If Comcast had been using ANY type of call center analysis or supervision it would not have taken me 6 months, dozens of documented) calls and letters (including one to the Chairman of the Board) to resolve a minor, but ultimately expensive, problem.

Corporate America needs to do whatever it takes to keep customers happy or they'll keep losing us.

Posted by: Comcastigation | October 18, 2006 4:27 PM

Does the president of a company ever call his own call center? I think it would be enlightening for her/him to have to jump through the hoops to find a real person with which to discuss the problem. But then again, she/he never has the problem because their accountant makes sure there is never a problem with the account.

The secretary probably spends the time on the phone trying to get a cell phone replaced, cable service straightened out (ever set up a hi-def T and box?) or try to straighten out a problem/mischarge on a credit card bill.

Posted by: CA guy | October 18, 2006 4:27 PM

I've forgotten who I called, but I kept saying "customer service representative" every time I was asked a question, and the phone tree finally put me in touch with a live human being.

Not that it did much good. True "customer service" is at an all time low these days.

Posted by: Gene | October 18, 2006 5:25 PM

Another call center veteran here - the person who advised patience and politeness when calling Customer Service couldn't have hit the nail more on the head - the worst customers that I deal with are always the ones that assume that I'm not trying to help them, or automatically request the assistance of a supervisor - Please understand just how insulting that is. The basic concept at all call center is thus - You will get service in an inverse ratio to your attitude when you speak to a representative. If you are nice about something, but firm and clear in your concerns, you will get as much assistance as possible; if you come off as angry, insulting and generally condescending, you won't get so much.

It's not right, but call center reps are people, too.

Now - the software described is utterly insane and a waste of money. QA staff monitoring calls and a good tracking system for customer complaints - with adequete and COMMITTED follow up, will resolve the problems that all are describing.

The problem is that companies simply choose not to understand the impact that poor customer service has on their product. One poster indicates that a good call center would keep them as a customer for life. How many people currently dread calling any customer service center? I certainly do, because I'm constantly met with people who can't handle or understand my problem. Corporate America - Wake Up! We don't want to handle our problems on the internet, or through an automated system. We want to talk to someone who is empowered to handle our problem, on the first call and without undue explanation. It really wouldn't cost that much to provide such service, but we don't value that anymore

Posted by: John D In Houston | October 18, 2006 6:41 PM

They want to know WHY customers are angry? Try POOR customer service and corruption! From the cable-phone-internet companies, to cell companies, EVERYONE is fed up with poor service! If we have a problem, we do not want transferred 5 times, placed on hold for 45 minutes, only to be told that the office is now closed, or that the person who can help is out today, or having some tech hang up on us so we have to start the whole process over again. When we call back, we are told it was an accident- yet it keeps happening. No, not because I am an irate customer- I am VERY calm on the phone. They do it because they think it is funny! I will calmly explain that I have a problem, that I've been trying to get to a real person for 45 minutes, they say Oh and then the phone goes dead! The only way of reaching a solution is to call back and start all over again- otherwise their billing mistake goes uncorrected, or your service is not fixed, or the exposed cable line in the back yard goes unburried for 2 years! We do not want people saying the work order was put in unless it really has, we do not want someone to tell us that someone will be there in an 8 hour window only to have them never show up after you take a day off work. We want reimbursed or credited for our time spent on hold or waiting for a technician to show up. If you are charging us monthly for service, make that poor service, then we should be fairly compensated for spending any of our time that is wasted trying to take fix a problem that should not even exist! In the end they can send creditors after you for not wanting to pay their fake charge- but when you have no way of disputing it other than throwing yourself on the mercy of some uncaring call-center person it is certainly frustrating because it is often cheaper and easier just to pay the extra $50 than it is to dispute it. We cannot as consumers send creditors after Time Warner or Comcast for them wasting our time! And now some execs are spending millions on trying to figure out why we are upset??? Tell them to try anonymously calling their help-desk with a problem and see where it gets them! Have them try to get a technician to their property! Have them see what it feels like to be told that a work order was signed as completed and the problem fixed when NOBODY ever showed up to fix it! They are too busy lining their lifestyles with our pain and suffering and cannot even comprehend the simple sollution of putting themselves in the consumers' shoes? I really wish the FCC or someone could stand up to these people!

Posted by: Chris | October 19, 2006 10:04 AM

I read all the excellent comments. Some struck a nerve, like kate's point about trouble tickets to get problems solved. VOIP telephone companies do that. Comcast absolutely has the worst call centers. I'm so happy I have a house now and Directv. So far, my Directv telephone reps have been 100 times more pleasant and have taken care of the problem the first time.

Let's hope that some corporate decision makers will read this blog and its comments.

Posted by: ProfessorB | October 19, 2006 1:49 PM

I had some problems with CareFirst BCBS and I had to call their customer service line several times over two months. I used the same number each time, and yet I was connected to two noticeably different "phone trees". Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Talk about frustration! Just when I thought I knew which buttons to push or answers to give, I'd call and get the other tree and have to make different choices. Plus, the choices on one tree really did not make sense. I don't know if they were testing one tree or phasing out one or what, but it sure made me believe that CareFirst is poorly run.

Posted by: Jay | October 19, 2006 4:35 PM

I talk to corporate decision-makers all the time about phone menus to try to get them to make their systems more usable. Information about the needs of SMALL BUSINESS users is pretty sparse, other than not wanting to talk to a machine at all. I'd love to hear what, if anything, small business owners or managers would find useful on a phone menu.

Posted by: Maggie Boys | October 20, 2006 5:28 PM

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