The Checkout

Get a Human, Get an A. Get a Machine, Get an F

Back in August, the original Checkout Consumer Champion and founder Paul English announced he had drafted standards for customer service and would be gathering input from consumers and companies such as Microsoft, Cisco Systems and IBM. It was GetHuman's first step toward evaluating companies on how well they treat us on the phone.

The standards are based on six core principles that make sense to anyone ever trapped in a phone tree.

Here's a quick rundown:

* Humans First. As the name "GetHuman" suggests, talking to a person and not a machine is a top priority. So, where a person is available, a person should quickly answer the call and figure out what the caller needs.

* Make it easy. The system should be so easy, convenient and efficient to use that people will choose to use it. As a rule of thumb, such systems should let the user accomplish tasks faster than if he dealt with a person.

* Efficient prompts. Prompts should serve a purpose. "Legalese" is a no-no, unless required by law. Cliché phrases such as "Your call is important to us," "Please listen carefully, as our menu options have changed," "You can access our Web site to answer most questions" should be avoided.

* Systems are not human beings. Automated systems that try to sound human can be patronizing. When a consumer calls with a serious issue, he does not want to be greeted by overly friendly and cheery personas.

* Listen to your customers. 'Nuf said.

* Logical flow. Self-service application questions should flow logically. For example, it is unacceptable to obtain a caller's account number, and then ask if he/she would like to open an account.

GetHuman graded 500 companies using these principles. In addition to posting the companies' grades, the site included steps on how to reach a person on the other end. The results are finally in and they're not pretty.

Only nine companies earned an A: Hertz, Commerce Bank, Dillard's, Lands End, L.L. Bean, Comfort Inn, Days Inn, Hyatt, and Walt Disney World.

Of 42 credit cards evaluated, including cards issued by Best Buy, Citi Simplicity and Discover, only two received a B, three received a D, and the rest received an F.

All 18 government agencies reviewed received an F, except for--believe it or not--the White House and the FBI.

Among wireless carriers, Boost Mobile, Cingular Wireless, Verizon Wireless and Virgin Mobile failed as well. T-Mobile came out on top with a D.

If you thought that helping GetHuman draft the standards won companies a pass, all you have to do is look at Microsoft's grade to know English and his band of volunteers didn't engage in grade inflation. The software giant received an F.

Last but not least: Newspaper subscription customer service was evaluated along with makers of consumer products. The Post scored a big fat F--worse than PETCO which received a D and Tyson Foods, which got a C.

As English put it on the GetHuman site, "There is much work to be done."

Want to play teacher? Were there companies you wanted to see graded that didn't make the list? Grade them here.

By Annys Shin |  December 4, 2006; 9:15 AM ET Consumer News
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

No surprise that Comcast got an F... they should have gotten a Z along with TimeWarner, who wasn't listed- but they're probably owned by Cablevision or some such. Yeah, this all told us something we already knew- customer service is awful. Hopefully the companies will take notice and this is not just more complaining to a brick wall.

Posted by: Chris | December 4, 2006 9:48 AM

They simply don't care. A large number of problems get solved when the customer simply goes away. Or at least the Verizons of the world think so.

Posted by: Steve | December 4, 2006 10:19 AM

Ooooh, that list as to how to get a human is helpful. Will be forwarding that one....

Posted by: Anonymous | December 4, 2006 10:44 AM

Unfortunately, some of the "GetHuman" tips don't work that well. They may get you a person, but that person may not be the right one to fix the problem. When that happens, expect to spend a lot more time on hold while your call is "transferred" to the "(insert proper division here) department." Then you will have to repeat the whole problem over again.

Posted by: lawgirl | December 4, 2006 10:51 AM

Oh, and some ratings of my own:

Cox Communications: F, or lower if there were lower grades available. Basically it would take too long to list everything they've screwed up with my service and account. It's faster to say I've never had a service or installation go property and in a timely manner.

Josten's Corp.: F, or lower. They have a monopoly on graduation services -- announcements, class rings, caps and gowns, etc. They screwed up my graduation announcements, then refused to fix them, them said I had to pay for them anyway. Finally the situation was corrected, but only after several e-mails, calls, and hours on the phone/hold with "customer service." I should have printed my own announcements.

Dell Hardware Support: F, or lower. Again, this would take too long to fully explain. I spend a total of 23 hours on hold/with customer service when all I needed was a new hard drive, which I told them in the first 10 seconds of the call. Instead, they made me run a bunch of diagnostics and do other things. I also could barely comprehend the representatives, as they had very thick accents.

Posted by: lawgirl | December 4, 2006 10:56 AM

Wow ... the Post got a "F". Big surprise to me.

Posted by: Don't Bother | December 4, 2006 11:47 AM

There was someone on this blog ranting about The Post a week or two ago. They posted twice, saying they hadn't received their newspaper in 3 or 4 weeks, and calls to the carrier went unreturned, and calls to the Post resutled in a "not our problem" attitude if I recall correctly. So the Post getting an F in subscription services doesn't surprise me. I just wish people like Annys, who see such comments on their blog, would kindly pull the strings to help consumers like the ranter instead of pretending they don't exist. Kind of antithetical to let pleas for help go unanswered when this blog blasts other companies for doing that.

Ah irony...

And no that person ranting wasn't me. I just remember their posts real well.

My beef with the Post: will not let me see their full website when I browse from a mobile device. Instead, I am automatically redirected to their mobile (and worthless) site. Please give me the option of browsing to the full site instead of practicing "father knows best" and assuming all mobile users want the mobile sites!! The Post should care, why?? Because it impacts your bottom line. I cannot browse the full site on weekends because I am not near a computer. I used to use my blackberry to browse it on the weekends, but no more. The info on the mobile site is worthless and not updated often, even after pressing refresh. So, because access has been taken away from me, the possibility of becoming a weekend subscriber is exactly zero, in an effort to show my displeasure and ignored e-mails to the Post requesting an explanation for why all mobile devices must be automatically redirected, versus the option sites like and give you.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | December 4, 2006 12:00 PM

The account number/new account item reminded me of one of my pet peeves that I rarely if ever see mentioned. When you call a financial institution, you usually have to enter an account number just to get to any useful part of the menu. Understandable, as they are trying to screen sales/new account calls from existing customer support calls, which are usually handled by different departments. But what gets me is it seems I ALWAYS have to tell the customer service rep. my account number verbally after having punched it in on the phone already. It would be relatively easy for the CSR to ALREADY have your account summary shown on their screen when they pick up your call with most computerized phone systems, but I have yet to find a company that does that.

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | December 4, 2006 12:26 PM

I would like to chime in with The Cosmic Avenger -- I hate to "punch in" my account number and then have to give it again verbally. And I agree with lawgirl about Dell -- I just won't buy their computers again.
And another peeve: I really do NOT want to have each and every conversation recorded. Does anyone else mind (or notice)? Once I refused (Verizon) and they refused to sign me up for their long distance.

Posted by: Boston Charlie | December 4, 2006 12:38 PM

I have two grades to give.
BB&T gets an F in my book because calling the stupid 1-800 number to try to find an ATM is worthless! Absolutly worthless. I just want to know where a freaking ATM is people, make like Bank of America and make that easier for me. Sheesh.
An I give an A to Legg Mason Financial Services. Sooo easy to get a human there (option #7) the wait is never more than a minute and they can always fix any quirks that I notice on my statement. Oh, and USAA gets an A too, those people are God sends!

Posted by: Melissa | December 4, 2006 1:08 PM

The "You can find many answers on our website" is especially ridiculous from ISP companies. Um, if I'm calling your help line, maybe it's because your internet service isn't working.

I actually don't mind not getting a human for certain things (account info, etc.), because a lot of companies seem to have chronic mumblers answering their phones. I have yet to talk to a real person working for Alienware (a Dell subsidiary), RCN, or Wachovia who neither mumbles nor has an incomprehensible accent (and I'm the kind of person who can usually decipher accented speech).

Posted by: Anonymous | December 4, 2006 1:16 PM

I'd add WMATA as a bad example. It takes a wait through a long announcement and several keys to get to a person to find out something as simple as a service disruption. They really should automate those.

And the complaint department is separate from the information section and closed during the time most of us run into problems.

Posted by: nashpaul | December 4, 2006 1:27 PM

To Boston Charlie: Better to have your conversations recorded than to suffer the wrath of customer service reps who don't have anyone watching over them. I can't believe that the evil Sallie Mae rep who called me a liar and hung up on me would have done so if she believed someone in management would review the tape!
While satisfying to see Sallie Mae get an 'F', it doesn't really fix the problem does it? We can hope that companies will see these results and implement change, but I fear that they really won't care.

Posted by: CC | December 4, 2006 3:30 PM

About 30 years ago I lived in downtown Washington, DC and my telephone number was very similar to the Washington Post's phone number at the time, a 202.223- phone number. This was before answering machines and e-mail.

I can't count how many times I was awakened before dawn by Post customers complaining their newspapers hadn't been delivered. I would just mumble 'They're in the bushes ....look for them' and then crawl back into bed. When I alerted the Post to this annoying problem, they said they had had the same phone number for years, it was in their advertising, and they wouldn't change. The least they could do was remind the numbskulls dailing at 5:00 a.m. to please dial carefully and considerately. Eventually I moved out of town and was able to get some sleep.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 4, 2006 3:46 PM

Why are most of these systems illogical and maddening? Probably because 90% are designed by U.S. citizens who have zero logical thinking ability. I am constantly amazed that some of my co-workers can even find the office each day because they are so unable to follow a chain of events or think clearly. It's not going to get better as our education system crumbles.

Posted by: Jason T. | December 4, 2006 4:57 PM

I always use the Get Human list when I call an 800 number and never ever ever use the prompts. I highly recommend it! You actually...get a human!

Posted by: Alice | December 4, 2006 5:02 PM

Thanks GetHuman for including the requirement to use the touch tones. It SUCKS SUCKS SUCKS to have to talk to the phone in any public setting, both because it is unreliable and because it's annoying to everyone else! If I have to talk to a machine, let me submit my input in machine readable format! Sorry Julie from Amtrak, please go away.

Posted by: andrew | December 4, 2006 5:47 PM

One more for me -- this was a late-breaking complaint. D+. I booked a package vacation via Orbitz, and the airline changed one of my flights so that I had no layover time, making my itenerary impossible. Orbitz never notified me. When I noticed, I called customer service, entered a bunch of information by touchpad, gave it again to CSRs, got disconnected, and started over. The tips on did not work.

It took almost an hour to get it sorted out. They get a D+ instead of an F because it was ultimately fixed and confirmed.

Posted by: lawgirl | December 4, 2006 6:43 PM

Who decided that callers needed to hear a (recorded) human voice every 15 seconds while they're on hold? (I timed it this morning.) I KNOW no customer service rep is currently available; that's why I am on hold! (Every 60-90 seconds would be better. Even better would be an estimated waiting time.)

I also don't like the relatively new option to leave a message and receive a call-back. That means they get to interrupt me when I'm doing something else, instead of having staff available when I'm ready to deal with the issue and have the necessary information at hand.

Posted by: GJ | December 4, 2006 6:50 PM

I think IVR systems are like plane crashes ... it's not news when the plane lands safely. There's always constant complaints about how phone systems all over the place frustrate customers. Does anyone ever talk about how they're helpful sometimes? Rarely.

Don't get me wrong, I get frustrated just like everyone else when calling these systems. But there are MANY times when they make life easier. Who wants to call, wait on hold to give an agent your account number to find out the amount of money in your bank account, or how much money is left on that gift card you got six months ago? I think there should be a list out there that talks about the HELPFUL IVR systems that people encounter. Have you ever called 411, used the automated system and gotten the phone number of that restaurant you're trying to make reservations at? I have, countless times.

Honestly, historically I've found that talking to a human at most of these companies is MUCH more frustrating. Poorly trained, poorly educated, poorly schooled in English agents are worse and more frustrating than any IVR phone system I've ever encountered.

Posted by: DT | December 5, 2006 10:16 AM

Charter Communications (cable service): This has to be the most frustrating, mindless "loop" I have ever been caught in. I would give this company an F minus. It is obvious that companies like this stay in business only because of the monopolies created for them by local governments!

Posted by: dean | December 5, 2006 12:17 PM

Well, I've been on hold for 27 minutes with Home Depot trying to figure out what happened to a gift card I ordered on Nov. 17 that they said was shipped on Nov. 20. Haven't talked to a live person yet.

Posted by: Crepuscular | December 6, 2006 5:26 PM

Yes, this is the President. I can't speak with you now, I'm busy parking cars.

It's the journey that is important not the destination.


Posted by: Sherman Long | December 6, 2006 8:23 PM

My biggest complaint about dealing with an automated system before you get to a human is that it always asks you to input your account number. Then, when you get to a human, the first thing they ask is your account number. Why have me bother putting it in if the computer can't remember it anyway.

Posted by: Barbara | December 8, 2006 2:42 PM

a recent favorable experience, with a small company Flavia coffee machines, was remarkable, and I'll give'm an A. I had a question about something in their user manual, and the woman who answered their service number, tried but couldn't answer the question, told me she was transferring me to a dept that would probably have left for the night, to leave my question on their voice mail and my number. The next morning, when I got to work, the answer to my problem was left on my voice mail here, I didn't even need to call them back to clarify. amazing. of course when they get bigger, maybe they'll get a robot like everyone else, but for now...
and I agree re the cable company, I DREAD calling comcast, they are orful.

Posted by: Harise | December 8, 2006 7:31 PM

The second worst is speaking a to a person who has no real knowledge of the company, problem solving and utterly no initiative or authority to get anything done.

Posted by: Patrick | December 15, 2006 2:52 PM

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