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How to Reach a Human Being In Customer Service

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Trying to get "customer service" from a big brand by phone—so you can ask a question, straighten out a billing problem or change an order—often means waiting on hold for a long time or trying to explain yourself to a series of recorded voice prompts. Or both. Many companies rely on artificial intelligence-driven automated phone systems (and some no longer even list their phone numbers) or customer service chatbots online. Good luck reaching a fellow human being, if your problem doesn't fit neatly into any of the categories a company's phone or chatbot system is programmed to suggest.

If it seems brands don't really want you to talk to their customer service reps, it's because they don't.

"Now, especially with COVID, not only do companies not want to spend on call centers, but workers don't want to take those jobs and get yelled at by angry customers all day," says Adam Goldkamp, chief operating officer of GetHuman, a website that offers customer service contact information and other hacks. "That's why companies try and manage the number of calls by making complicated IVRs [interactive voice responses] that take a long time—to try and help control the flow of calls to the agents."

Research shows, though, that consumers still prize human interaction. A 2021 study conducted by OnePoll and cloud-based call center software company TCN found seven out of 10 Americans surveyed said speaking with a live agent by phone is their preferred method of contact.

"There is an element of shopping that is very social," Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights at the National Retail Foundation says. "I don't know that that desire is going to go away."

Cullen likens customer service automation to self-checkout lines at supermarkets: time-saving conveniences in theory, but often nuisances in practice. "It's really frustrating to run into problems unless someone is there to guide you through the system," she says.

Not every company, of course, is terrible about getting back to customers and solving problems for them. The American Customer Satisfaction Index, which ranks companies according to industry, puts online marketplace Etsy in the top spot in retail, and JetBlue in airlines. Another company known for its quick response time is Zingerman's, a specialty foods and deli outfit in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that does consulting and training with other businesses on customer service. And retail startup Verishop, which connects customers to goods from independent fashion and houseware brands, says it has living, breathing customer service agents on call 24/7 for both phone and email queries.

Tips to Help You Break Through

For companies that are not so responsive, there are a number of online services you can turn to that gather and post contact information as well as likely hold times and best times to call. Among them: GetHuman, Dial A Human, Talkdesk and Contact Help. GetHuman's Goldkamp says, "More people are using our forum now than ever."

The most searched companies include Google, Amazon and Uber as well as several airlines and phone companies. Among the toughest businesses to reach are social media companies. Goldkamp says, "Those businesses often provide customer service to other businesses that pay to advertise on their platform, but not to consumers that use the services."

Among Dial A Human's suggested hacks to reach a person once you're actually on the phone: Dial 0 repeatedly, keep saying "operator" or "customer representative," or talk in nonsense for a minute. Many automated call systems are programmed to send you to a human by default if you simply stay silent in response to its prompts.

Madeline Sinn, a customer service representative at an e-commerce website, suggests using the "call back" function if the company has one. "If you enter your number and hang up, a live person will call back," she says. Sinn also says if your concern isn't urgent, emailing can be a better option. "Someone actually has to review all of those," she says. "The turn-around time isn't as quick, but it won't be a bot."

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Often it can actually be easier to reach a human through an online chatbot than through the phone, although these are more suited to simple tasks like returns. NRF's Cullen says chatbots, "provide a human experience where someone may not necessarily even initially recognize that they're chatting with a bot." If a bot isn't cutting it for you, though, one techniques that often works to send you to person is repeatedly clicking "other" when a bot offers you response options.

When all else fails, taking the issue to social media can get quick reactions from live people; commenting on a brand's Instagram posts saying you need help or tagging a brand in a post about your problem has been known to work. So has complaining publicly on Twitter or contacting company executives directly via LinkedIn.

As NRF's Cullen says, "An automated response would further alienate the consumer, rather than something that feels at least somewhat personalized or a little more authentic."

This story is part of a series exploring the latest consumer trends and innovations. For more articles on these topics, go to newsweek.com/oracle.