Michelle Teheux: Reach out and touch an automated voice-recognition system

Michelle Teheux

Raise your hand if you’ve had it with the voice-recognition customer “service” systems that so many companies are using these days.

We all thought it was bad when we had to listen to long menus asking us to push 1 if we had a question about billing, push 2 if we needed a mailing address, etc.

Now I long for those days.

Now half the companies out there have automated systems that try to understand certain numbers or key words that you speak into the phone.

I spent several hours last week dealing with a credit card company, trying to ensure an electronic payment had gone through properly. That wasn’t a phrase the automated system understood, though.

I finally got through to a human by persistently saying, “OPERATOR! I need a real live OPERATOR! Give me an OPERATOR, you stupid system!” Actually, “stupid” isn’t the word I really used.

And of course, that human being was in India, and he couldn’t understand more than a few keywords, either. In fact, I assume that’s what gave corporations the idea of the totally automated system in the first place.

I used to avoid automated systems by pretending I had a rotary dial phone, forcing a human to pick up and deal with me. But the corporations know very well there isn’t a household in the country that still has a rotary phone, and they are no longer taken in by this ruse. They don’t even give you the option.

And besides, they would no doubt say, you don’t need to push buttons anymore anyway, because you can now just speak to the system.

Just as you used to be able to bypass impersonal systems by pretending you had a rotary phone, you can now sometimes get out of the voice recognition systems by shouting unintelligible responses. But you must make certain you make so little sense that you frustrate the computer. And talk loudly, because I really do think the systems are set up to recognize the volume of your voice and send you to a human being if they sense you’re about to blow a gasket. Or at least that’s how I justify screaming at the prerecorded voices.

“Garbanzos!” you might try.

“I think you said, 'Open a new account.' If this is correct, say yes.”

“Elephant!” you reply.

“I think you said, 'Billing.' If this is correct, say yes.”

“Vote for Ron Paul!”

“Let me transfer you to an operator.”


Well, sort of success, if you get somebody you can understand. If you can’t, start the whole process over and hope for more luck with the next person.

The thought occurred to me today -- as I dealt with no fewer than three automated systems -- that any company that became known for offering really excellent customer service would make a mint.

Imagine calling a company, and without even being put on hold, being immediately connected to a knowledgeable person with good English skills able to answer all your questions. Wouldn’t that surprise you so much you’d tell all your friends? Wouldn’t you want to do business with that company forever?

I would. So maybe that’s what I’ll shout next time.

Michelle Teheux can be reached at (309) 346-1111, ext. 661, or at