By WILLIAM C. TAYLOR
PAUL M. ENGLISH never imagined that a pet peeve would become such a
célèbre. For more than four years, Mr. English, a veteran technologist
serial entrepreneur, has maintained a blog on which he shares
from his favorite chocolate cake recipe to the best management advice
But last summer, fed up with too many aggravating run-ins with awful
customer service, Mr. English posted a blog entry that reverberated
the world: a “cheat sheet” that explained how to break through
interactive voice-response systems at a handful of companies and speak
human being. He named the companies and published their codes for
an operator – codes that they did not share with the public.
The reaction was overwhelming. Visitors to the blog began contributing
their own code-breaking secrets and spreading the word. The consumer
affairs specialist for The Boston Globe wrote about Mr. English, who
the chief technical officer of Kayak.com, a travel search engine he
to found, and gave his online cheat sheet mainstream attention. That
appearances on MSNBC, NPR and the BBC, an article in People magazine –
more than one million visitors to the blog in January alone.
So, this month, Mr. English transformed his righteous indignation into
full-blown crusade. He started Get Human, which he calls a grass-roots
movement to “change the face of customer service.” The accompanying
site, www.gethuman.com, sets out principles for the right ways for
companies to interact with customers, encourages visitors to rate
experiences (the site is to issue a monthly best-and-worst list), and
publishes many more secret codes unearthed by members of the movement.
of last week, the ever-expanding cheat sheet offered
cut-through-the-automation tips for nearly 400 companies.
“I’m not anticomputer,” Mr. English explained over lunch near his
suburban Boston. “I’ve been a programmer for more than 20 years. I’m
anticapitalist. I’m on my fifth start-up. But I am anti-arrogance. Why
the executives who run these call centers think they can decide when I
deserve to speak to a human being and when I don’t?”
The Get Human cheat sheet makes for entertaining – and mystifying –
reading. Want to reach an operator at a certain major bank? Just press
0#0#0#0#0#0#. Want to reach an agent at a big dental insurance
Press 00000, wait through a message, select language, 4, 0. Want to
human at a leading consumer electronics retailer? Press 111## and wait
through three prompts asking for your home phone number.
It would be funny if it weren’t so depressing – and such bad business.
Countless chief executives pledge to improve their company’s products
services by listening to the “voice of the customer.” Memo to the
office: Answer the phone! How can companies listen to their customers
those customers have such a hard time reaching a human being when they
The obvious defense is that it’s prohibitively expensive to offer the
personal touch to millions of curious, confused, angry (or even
enthusiastic) callers. The trouble is, companies tend to be better at
cutting costs than at identifying missed opportunities.
Richard Shapiro is president of the Center for Client Retention in
Springfield, N.J., a business that dials out to customers who have
in to toll-free call centers and asks them to evaluate their
He argues that customers who interact with human beings are more
than other callers to volunteer useful information, try out a new
and come away with a strong sense of loyalty – positive outcomes that
eliminated by excessive automation.
“You create more value through a dialogue with a live agent,” Mr.
said. “A call is an opportunity to build a relationship, to encourage
customers to stay with the brand. There can be a real return on this
It’s a point that too many cost-conscious companies seem willing to
overlook. In an era of fierce competition, when customers have more
than ever, the toughest business challenge isn’t to keep expenses
It’s to keep loyalty high. Anything that a company does to make its
products and services a little more engaging, a little less ordinary,
pay big dividends. Anything like, say, answering the phone.
Commerce Bancorp, the service-crazed retail bank based in Cherry Hill,
N.J., has generated big returns by injecting a playful spirit into a
notoriously bland business. Its 375 branches, including 47 in New York
City, organize street fairs and celebrations to promote an
mood. The locations also feature colorful change-counting machines and
upbeat employees, who every Friday are decked out in red, often to
hilarious effect. The company calls its strategy “retailtainment” –
applies as much to its call center as it does to its branches in
or on Broadway.
“Traditional banking is low cost, low service, low growth,” said
DiFlorio, president for retail banking and operations at Commerce.
like the electric company; everybody needs one and they’re all
We’ve built a brand on service, convenience and fun. Our call center
a necessary evil. It’s an integral part of the brand. Every call is an
opportunity to reinforce to the customer that they made a good
banking with us.”
Forget automation or outsourcing to India. At the Commerce call center
Mount Laurel, N.J., 630 employees abide by a strict code of neatness –
sweat pants, no slippers, no junk on the desks,” Mr. DiFlorio
cracked – and
they, too, wear red on Friday, even though customers can’t see them.
Incoming calls are routed easily and directly to agents, who are
not just to inform but also to maintain the same friendly and informal
spirit of the branches. “We try to create as much buzz as we can in
call center,” Mr. DiFlorio said, “so we can create smiles on the
To be sure, few companies can summon the everyday exuberance of
Bank. But there is another cost-effective strategy for enhancing the
element: make the company so easy to do business with that fewer
call with problems, which frees resources to meet the needs of those
“The reason people are dialing the 1-800 number is that they’re having
bad experience in some other channel,” said Mark Hurst, founder and
president of Creative Good, a consulting firm that advises companies
to improve the customer experience. He is amazed, he said, at how
it remains on most Web sites for customers to do little things like
an order or track a shipment. “If e-commerce were much, much simpler,”
said, “a huge percentage of these calls would never be made.”
JIM KELLY, chief customer service officer at ING Direct, the online
with 3.5 million customers and deposits of nearly $40 billion, takes
case for simplicity a step further. ING Direct keeps its entire
line simple. It offers a small number of easy-to-understand products
as savings accounts, certificates of deposit and no-frills mortgages.
savings programs entail no annual fees or account minimums.
As a result, the average ING Direct customer calls the bank only 1.6
a year. The calls that do come in are answered by full-time employees
don’t rely on scripted answers and don’t work under strict time
“The key word for us is simplicity,” Mr. Kelly said. “If you eliminate
service charges and hidden fees, you eliminate most of the problems
complaints. Then the only reason for people to call is to do business.
those are calls you’re eager to take.”
That sort of thinking is music to Paul English’s ears – although most
his ears are ringing with outrage from aspiring consumer activists
join Get Human. “There’s a little ‘rage against the machine’ to this,
there’s a business message as well,” Mr. English said. “I want
wake up and ask themselves, ‘How did we ever let it get this bad?’ ”