Tackling call centres

Voice-activated software can be a nightmare for some people.
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01 .The call centre culture


Dealing with call centres, can be a nightmare for those with a speech impairment, a disability, an accent, poor English, the elderly, or those who just aren't comfortable with technology - especially if they're forced to use voice-activated software.

Whether you’re calling a bank, a telecommunications company or your insurer it’s likely you’re going to have to follow a series of prompts via either voice-activated software or a keypad menu before you can speak to a real person who can help with your query. 

While this sounds straightforward, in reality it can involve long, time-consuming calls, a spiral of requests to punch in keypad numbers, account numbers, passcodes or shouting various requests into your handset only to be replied to by a robotic voice saying “sorry, I didn’t get that – could you try again?”

Check out our tips for dealing with call centres, and for more information about legal, see Shopping and legal.

Self-service culture

Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes says the “one size fits all” approach can mean people are left out, particularly those with disabilities.

“More than one-fifth of the Australian population can be defined as having a disability. That’s a lot of people companies are potentially leaving out of their customer service standards.”

“The issue that we come across a lot is that of universal design – many call centres seem to be designed to suit just one kind of person,” he says. “This isn’t always going to work for everyone and that’s where the system can fall down,” he says.

Innes goes on to say that while there are guidelines for companies when it comes to voice-activated menus, they’re guidelines only and the standards are voluntary. “It’s up to the individual company to decide how it manages calls and the needs of the callers.”

Innes argues smart companies will always offer alternatives. “If they have voice software and that isn’t working for you it should offer the alternative of a keypad menu; failing that you should be able to stay on the line and wait to speak to an operator. It is unlawful to treat a person less favourably, so it’s in companies’ interests to make sure they have measures in place to help customers who need assistance.

Dr Nichola Robertson of Deakin University has studied the impact of new customer service strategies on society. She says that while there are plenty of advantages to self-service menus, such as a high level of control over access and the feeling of independence they can provide to customers, there are trade-offs. “The downside of self-service systems is that they can fail to offer a sufficient breadth and depth of service, which can lead to them being perceived as restrictive because only certain simple and straightforward services can be performed,” she says.

Tips for dealing with call centres

  • Press zero if it’s a keypad number or say “operator” for voice-activated services if you’re having trouble navigating a call centre menu. Most companies will then forward you to the queue to speak to a real person.
  • Be patient Call centre staff often cop the worst of our moods when we’ve been on hold for a long time, but bear in mind they’re answering up to hundreds of calls a day.
  • Keep a record of when you called and to whom you spoke Most call centre reps don’t provide surnames to protect their privacy but by law must provide you with a first name.
  • Ask for a reference number Most centres will log issues via your account or via a number; be sure to jot it down if you have more problems.
  • Check if the company in question takes calls from the National Relay Service (NRS) if you have a disability or speech problems – relayservice.com.au or phone voice calls/TTY (text telephone) 133677.
  • Contact the Human Rights Commission if you feel you’ve been discriminated. You can call on 1300 656 419.

Who hangs up?

While most large service companies have a different approach to managing their customers when they call, what separates the best from the rest is how they handle calls that don’t respond to voice activation software or the correct keypad menus.

CHOICE called a number of large telecommunications, banking and utility companies to see how they stacked up in managing difficult calls. Our callers deliberately mumbled and didn’t press the keypads when asked. After several rounds of recorded requests to try again, the majority of companies eventually offloaded the calls into a queue where they were answered by customer service reps.

There were, however, two exceptions. One major telecommunications company and one of the banks both terminated the calls rather than put them through to an operator. Both companies after rounds of automated requests to try again or use the keypad eventually terminated the calls rather than put our callers through to an operator who could assist.


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If you don’t have access to the internet it can be incredibly hard to get access to information.
- Dani Fried, ACCAN

While call centres are one part of the picture, what concerns many experts CHOICE spoke to is the so-called digital divide.

“People with disabilities are on the wrong side of the digital divide,” says Dani Fried, Accessibility Officer for the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN). “If you don’t have access to the internet it can be incredibly hard to get access to information.” She believes that while online technology can be a great help to those who struggle to communicate, for those who don’t have access to this technology “the only option is the phone, and unfortunately those call centre menus aren’t going anywhere”.

Aine Healy, acting executive director of NSW Council for Intellectual Disability, says getting access to information is becoming a major challenge for a number people with intellectual disabilities, especially those with poor literacy or communication abilities. “It is often preferable that people receive information face-to-face or in a format that might include pictures, however this is becoming increasingly difficult as so much is becoming automated and usually over the phone.”

For Dr Rex Newsome, the phone is particularly problematic. Newsome has cerebral palsy, which affects his speech, making it slower and slurred. He says that because of this, voice recognition systems don’t respond to his voice. Even if he does manage to get through to an operator, some of them will simply hang up on him. “I can spend 20 minutes just trying to get through to someone. It’s a nightmare.”

A different approach

In a market where most large companies use some kind of automated system, insurer AAMI’s “speak to a real person” approach is radically different. The strategy is simple: all callers to a single number have their call answered within 30 seconds by a real person before being directed into the right queue.

Josh Wittner, AAMI’s executive marketing manager of personal insurance, says the campaign has been in effect for a number of years and has proved to be a strong selling point in the marketplace, even though it comes at a cost. “There have been discussions from time to time as to whether we go to a more cost effective solution,” he says.

However, the benefit for AAMI is huge customer satisfaction. “When people are calling in to make a claim they’ve usually had something unpleasant happen to them, such as a car accident or a flood. Having a real person answer their call straight away and work out where to send them is a great advantage.”

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