How poor customer-call management can cut into your bottom line

“Your call is very important to us.” We’ve all heard it when we call most businesses and government agencies these days.

Important — really? To businesses, what happens next in this interaction may mean the difference between retaining brand loyalty or losing a frustrated customer.

This is according to a host of North Bay and U.S. company officials and economists who weighed in with professional and personal experiences of automated phone system failings.

And now a national survey polling 1,000 U.S. adults backs up the source of sarcasm that’s worsened during the pandemic. The enraging circumstances are best summed up by a Facebook post: “Please stay on the line until the call is no longer important to you.”

The OnePoll survey commissioned last summer by TCN, a St. George, Utah, cloud-based telecommunications firm, found that over half of callers (52%) want “to get through to a live agent.”

Though survey-takers said they were willing to be on hold for 6 minutes, they end up hanging on for nearly three times longer, or an average of 17.4 minutes.

Andrew McNeil, principal of Arrow Benefits Group in Petaluma, complained that he once waited on hold for over an hour conducting business with an insurance company before a customer service representative came on the line.

“Thank God,” he cried out, before gasping when the representative answered as if she couldn’t hear him on the line: “Hello? Hello? Hello?”

“Then she said: ‘Just kidding,’” McNeil recalled, reminding himself at the time to maintain a sense of humor.

McNeil said he avoids calling conglomerates these days because their phone systems are more apt to be fully automated. The better systems allow for the caller to leave a prompt to get a call back, avoiding the need to be hold.

According to the survey, the disconnect between a robo-type phone system and the callers varies by industry and demographic.

When asked in the survey how likely or unlikely they were to “abandon a brand after a poor customer service experience,” about two-thirds of respondents in two prime demographics — Gen Zers (65%, ages 18-24) and millennials (61%, ages 25-40) — indicated they would move on.

When asked what entity is “the worst to get a hold of,” the cable and wireless industry received the lowest marks (43%). Inquiries to the California Cable and Telecom Association to address the issue were unreturned.

Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Peter Rumble contends that companies like cell phone providers have a large toehold in their markets, so in the absence of competition, it’s easier to provide substandard service.

“It’s like the race to the bottom,” he said, adding he’s grateful his membership is dominated by smaller businesses that advocate for human interactions.

John Mackey, senior vice president and managing director for the Santa Rosa’s Exchange Bank’s investment and fiduciary services, represents the industry that fared the best in the TCN poll, with 68% of respondents saying “they are extremely or somewhat satisfied” with results of calling banks. Health care organizations came in second.

Why did banks rank the highest?

Mackey suggests banks were rated best in answering calls because financial institutions were early adopters of automated phone systems in the 1980s, so they’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. At the time, banks were tapped to make and take transcontinental calls between people conducting a variety of transactions in different time zones at all hours.

“Banks were prepped for this,” he said.

Mackey has experienced the infuriating circumstances from a poorly-managed phone tree.

“When I make those calls, I cut the process off really early, so I don’t damage equipment or hurt anybody near me,” he joked.

Exchange Bank’s Customer Experience Manager Beth Ryan said call handling is more important these days. Fewer workers are managing a higher call volume, with customers having more time on their hands to call.

“We’ve seen an increase in call volume and wait time, and we’re not comfortable with that,” Ryan said. Plugging in a “call back” feature into the bank’s system has turned out to be helpful, she said.

Ryan pointed out how the call center representatives are doing the best they can to handle a multitude of situations, some among people who could be “one step away from their last straw” during the pandemic.

“There’s awful stuff happening out there,” she said, listing fraud, hacks and virus-related problems. “I have the best job in the world, but it can be heartbreaking. We’re all going through a lot.”

As a means of making their customers’ lives easier, the community bank is in the process of upgrading its phone service and expanding the call center beyond the office on Aviation Boulevard in Santa Rosa.

Ryan, who has worked for the Sonoma County bank since starting as a teller in 1988, has discovered just how much seniors like talking to a live person, as opposed to dealing with a robot.

And with some automated phone systems, the option that drops a caller on hold after an hour is something that makes Ryan grimace. The bank’s phone system doesn’t allow for that practice.

She’s not surprised by the younger generations refusing to patronize a company with poor customer service. Even though they have grown up with technology, these millennials and GenZers harbor no undaunted loyalty to a company that fails to commit to providing adequate service.

Competition, again as they say, is the best thing for the consumer.

Bank of Marin CEO Tim Myers said banks may put a lot of energy into a call center because it’s too easy for customers to go elsewhere with their money.

“Banks are highly competitive. If you don’t work hard on customer service, it’s easier to take the business down the street,” Myers told the Business Journal.

Of course, the reason for the call will drive what type of interaction is necessary. AI answering the call may help provide a loan status update without a hitch. But discussing the details of the loan application is quite another matter that calls for a person on the other end, Community First Credit Union CEO Scott Johnson explained.

“There, you’re absolutely going to want to talk to a human being,” he said.

No automated receptionists here

Some Sonoma County companies have declined to buy into the automated phone system as a way of doing business. At GC Micro Corporation in Petaluma, Administrative Assistant Shannon Hamernick answers all the phone calls for the engineering and technology company. Often times, she answers after only one ring.

The responsiveness sometimes floors callers who tell her the interaction serves as a pleasant surprise and that the interaction makes their day.

The reason for having the person “at the ready” to physically and quickly answer calls is simple to the woman running the company.

“Customer service is our No. 1 priority. We never want our customers to go through pressing all those buttons to try to get up to a live person. I hate that, and I know our customers hate that,” CEO Belinda Guadarrama said.

“Sometimes they tell me they’re ready to press an extension because they think they’ll get a recording,” Hamernick said, chuckling.

The unique nature of Hamernick’s work comes up in personal settings as well. When she goes out in public and tells people what her line of work is, they reference the rarity of it.

“A lot of people say how great having an administrative assistant answering the phones is and how we’re still doing it,” she said.

But those who do what Hamernick does are fewer and farther between. Statistically, there are fewer administrative assistants, receptionists, secretaries and general office clerks in the business world.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook as of last September, the roles of administrative assistants and secretaries are projected to decline by 7% between 2020 and 2030. Customer service representatives and general office clerks are expected to drop by 1% and 2%, respectively, in the decade.

The bureau attributes the decrease in the number of receptionists to workers who “transfer to different occupations” or “exit the workforce.”

But Hamernick is happy to stay put in her important role.

“I have great pride and integrity in what I do,” she said.

Either way, most business stakeholders agreed that technology is here to stay. But what is the right mix before we lose sight of the human touch?

“The bottom line is, technology has transformed our society in the way we do business,” said Jeff Kagan, an analyst who studies the telecom industry.

“We used to call a place for a person. Now we call a person. This has been going on for the last decade or two. The pandemic has only accelerated this trend, when all of a sudden companies sent everybody home,” Kagan said.

Now, the customer experience is driven by the bottom line for American companies, Kagan cited.

“Prompts (on phone systems) were instituted years ago because companies were hiring fewer customer service representatives. Now it’s out of control,” he said, referring to the level of their absence. “With two years passing, now we have the expectation we can survive this way.”

Some companies do better with the technology than others, Kagan pointed out, citing Apple, which offers both technical support by a person on the phone and store help.

“With their products, they can fix things for you. If they can’t fix it on the phone, they’ll fix it at the store,” he said. “Companies need to see how to become the Apple of their industry.”

Jon Haveman, who runs NEED (National Economic Education Delegation), a network for economists based in San Rafael, is convinced companies should run a comparison of business gained over a six-month period operating with an automated phone system half the year and with a receptionist answering the calls in the other half.

Haveman contends that “sure, it’s costly” to have representatives answer the phone, but at what cost to lost business?

“We’ve lost that human contact. You save money (in the short term), but indirectly, people are going to leave if you have a disaster of a service,” he said, lamenting. “It’s completely ridiculous.”

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, biotech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, now a part of the Union Tribune in San Diego County, along with the Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or

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