03/17/2013 07:27 am ET Updated May 17, 2013

Customer Service -- May I Help You?

"Customer service -- May I help you?" We all long to hear those words, but more often than not when you call customer service you become trapped in the abyss of telephone hell -- a maze of automated systems, on-hold extended silences and frustrating pathways.

Here's a typical scenario that you may recognize. You identify a problem with a utility company and you dial the 800 number for customer service. An automated system answers the call and asks for your information. You either say or enter the information several times because the system doesn't understand you the first or second time. After repeated entries the automated system finally gives you a choice of options -- none of which fit your particular situation. Ideally you would like to speak to a human being so that you can explain your problem, but in order to do that you must make a choice and enter more information. Although you may not know it, you have just entered "customer service hell" and you are rerouted to the main menu where it begins all over again. Is this beginning to sound familiar?

Your patience is eroding and your monthly cell phone usage allotment is slowly disappearing between on-hold wait times and your failed attempts to reach a human being. You sense that something is not right because after a period of silence you hear the automated refrain, "If you wish to make a call, hang up and dial again." You have been disconnected.

So you take a deep breath and call back. Of course you have lost your place in line as "calls are answered in the order in which they are received," but what can you do -- you were disconnected! If you do manage to reach a human being you will have to repeat all your information and then be asked "May I place you on hold." At that point you panic and beg for the agent's name and a direct call back number, knowing full well that you have reached a call center and the odds of reaching the same person again are nil. Every once in a while the agent asks for your call back number, "in case we get disconnected." That is deceptively encouraging, but it does serve to calm you down.

Recently I had an issue with AT&T that necessitated calling customer service. We have been AT&T customers since moving to California over 16 years ago. At that time we installed a single home landline and although we made some changes over the years, we always kept our original home phone number. Recently I was struck by the absurdly high cost of our simple line that has no call waiting, caller ID or messaging, so I decided to call AT&T to see why our charges were so high and to remedy it. Having a landline for us is not optional because my husband is a stroke survivor and we must be assured of communication in case he has a problem and the cell towers fail. We never use our landline to make calls as we all have cell phones. We keep it for emergencies only, but it is essential to have.

The resolution of that issue involved dealing with many automated response systems, speaking with eight customer service agents for over four hours over the course of two days. I thought that I had solved the issue and arranged for a date to change our service and to decrease our monthly bill by 75 percent. Unfortunately the conditions were that we had to change our home phone number of 16 years and accept that AT&T would not forward our new number to callers. I wasn't happy, but I agreed.

One of the many AT&T representatives with whom I spoke assured us that the disconnect of our old number and the activation of our new one would be coordinated on a given date. On that date, right on schedule, at 8 a.m., AT&T disconnected our home phone. We waited all day for the activation of our new line but it didn't happen. That evening I called AT&T and was directed to call the "after hours" number. Someone in the Philippines answered the "after hours" phone number. Thus began another round of AT&T customer service hell where I was routed to various people, all of whom said they could not help us.

Had it not been for a kind-hearted AT&T repairman who went above and beyond his duties we would still be without a landline, stuck in the customer service labyrinth. He came to our home and discovered that AT&T had incorrectly written our address on the work order and was routing service to our garage. Although he was not authorized to change the work order, he took the initiative to consult with his supervisor who ok'd the restoration of service to our home. Hallelujah!

Yes, customer service, you may help us -- but will you?

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