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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 6, 2006

Press # and seethe with customer rage

By Larry Ballard

This is a story about a guy named Me.

I want to share a story that illustrates a growing problem in the business world.

My brother and his wife, through no fault of their own, live in Lincoln, Neb. For Christmas, I bought them front-row tickets to a performance in Omaha by a washed-up, unreliable comedian who shall remain nameless until my refund is finalized.

I was informed by e-mail a few hours before the concert that the aforementioned funnyman had abruptly canceled.

My brother and his wife, of course, were already on the road to Omaha. To complicate matters, I had used an online travel agent to book them a swanky room at a hotel near the theater.

"No problem," my understanding sibling said. "We'll just check into the hotel and find something else to do."

Alas, when they reached the hotel, there was no reservation, no record of prepayment and no idea on the part of the desk clerk how such a thing could ever happen in a trillion years.

The result, my friend David Beinhacker would later explain, was a first-class case of what is known as Customer Rage.

Beinhacker works for Customer Care Measurement & Consulting of Alexandria, Va. He studies how companies respond to consumer complaints and how often the complainers get satisfaction.

The 2005 Customer Rage Study found that 62 percent of dissatisfied customers (including me) try to handle the problem with a telephone call. About 43 percent of them (including me) end up with an "extreme level of customer rage." (The other 57 percent, I assume, are still on hold.)

I called the travel agent and was instructed to punch in my confirmation information, after which I was told in a soothing, robotic voice that everything was in order.

If I wanted to continue with the call, I should press the # key.

It was a slippery step into the morass of automated customer service. I got to what seemed like "Press 8 if you've completely forgotten why you called in the first place; press 9 if you have celebrated at least one birthday since placing this call." Then I lost any shred of patience I had left.

There followed several hours of calls to at least six phone numbers supplied by hotel employees, my credit-card company and the booking agent's own Web site.

Each call began: "To confirm a reservation, press 1 now."

I only wish I had known Paul English then.

English, a software engineer in Arlington, Mass., is fast becoming famous for his ability to break through automated telephone menus to get a flesh-and-blood customer service representative you can actually scream at.

His efforts started a few years ago when he tried to reach his cell-phone service provider and got trapped in the same automated hell.

"Plus, it always bugged me to see how my dad became unable to use the phone when the computers started taking over. So part of my motivation for this fight is in his name," English said.

I won't give away all of his secrets, but English has figured out how to crack the phone systems of several big companies. With a few taps on the keypad or a well-timed voice prompt, he is able to cut the crap and hook up with a real, live person every time.

He posted the "cheat sheet" on his blog, paulenglish.com, "and the thing took off like crazy."

It's one of the most forwarded links on the Internet.

And no wonder. It works.

I employed his techniques in a follow-up call to the travel company.

When I finally got through, I hung up on the real, live person who answered.