As a frequent traveler, Amanda Williams assumed it would be easy to book flights from Charlotte, N.C., to Jackson, Miss., to attend her grandfather's funeral.
But when she called an airline to request a bereavement fare – common in such circumstances – problems began. The customer service representative, based in another country, was the first of four agents who had what she describes as "extremely heavy accents." None of them knew how to handle her request.
"Apparently 'bereavement fare' was not translating well for them, and no one could understand what I needed," says Ms. Williams, who works in advertising. Noting that it took nearly two hours to book tickets for herself and three relatives, she says, "I had to tell the story four different times. I finally broke down crying on the phone, partly from grief but also out of frustration."
More Americans share Williams's frustration these days as they encounter two contentious customer service practices. One is outsourcing, in which calls are routed to agents overseas. The second involves automated telephone systems that send callers through a maze of recorded menu options – "Press 1 for English," "Press 5 for account information," and so on. Aware that they are alienating customers, some companies are scrambling to do better.
"Outsourcing has been quite an issue," says Roger Nunley, managing director of the Customer Care Institute, a resource organization in Atlanta. "Early on, it was not handled too well by outsourcing service providers. Today there are some very good outsourcing providers that do an excellent job." Overall, he adds, "the state of customer care seems to be improving."
But part of the challenge for customers stems from a two-tier system of service.
"Companies call it 'segmentation,' " says Jay Galbraith, author of "Designing the Customer-Centric Organization." "They know who's calling because of caller ID. If you're a top customer, they'll send your call to the US. If you're just an ordinary customer, you'll probably be routed to India or another outsourced site. It's not democratic at all."
Williams tells of a co-worker who has accumulated a huge bank of frequent-flier miles. "When she calls [an airline], she immediately gets a US-based customer service rep who greets her by name."
An author in San Diego whose new HP desktop computer developed a problem phoned the company's tech support line for help. She discovered that owners of business computers are served by staff in the United States. Those with in-home computers are routed overseas. "I asked the woman to transfer me to the States, but she refused," says the woman, who does not want to be identified. HP declined to comment.
Similarly, at many airlines there is no way to transfer to an agent in the US. "If you're not satisfied, say, 'I'm sorry, I'm having a hard time understanding you. Please transfer me to your supervisor," says Robin Urbanski, a United spokeswoman.
At Midwest Airlines in Milwaukee, spokeswoman Carol Skornicka says, "We never have even considered foreign outsourcing. There's a very important connection with the customer that begins with the reservation process. We get a lot of customer feedback on these employees. They're very proactive at dealing with customers' special needs."
Tom Salyers wanted a proactive approach from his two credit-card companies when his wallet was stolen from his gym locker.
"It took five or six times as long to cancel my MasterCard, which was outsourced to India, as it did to cancel my American Express card," says Mr. Salyers, communications director for a national children's nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.
"I called Citibank. He was clearly reading from a script. He asked me three or four times, 'Did you lose it? Do you know who took it?' I had to answer the same questions multiple times due to cultural and language barriers."
By contrast, when Salyers called American Express and reached an agent in the South, he says, "She didn't ask a lot of questions about how it was stolen. She said, 'We'll have the credit card to you tomorrow.' "
Even when a customer-service representative abroad speaks excellent English, callers can face another challenge. Representatives often have no authority to make decisions.
"They aren't empowered to do what they need to do to satisfy the customer," Nunley says. "They don't dare deviate [from the script]. It counts against them in performance."
Andrea Nierenberg, a business training consultant in New York, says, "If they could be trained to be more spontaneous or improvise, that would improve service dramatically."
Consumer advocates say other changes need to occur in automated phone systems.
"The inability to get to a human is the top complaint," says Lorna Rankin, director of www.gethuman.com, part of a consumer movement to improve the quality of phone support in the US. "Additionally, when callers get to a person, they can't understand them. Either they speak too quickly or they have a thick accent.
"People want to be able to leave a message when they call after hours," she adds. "And it's respectful to consumers to let them know how long the wait will be."
The website's database of 500 companies gives numbers to press to bypass recordings.
Ms. Rankin emphasizes that she is not advocating that every call must be answered by a person at the outset. "We're definitely not against these phone systems. In many cases they save time. But they should be simple to use, and they should always have an option to get to a person." Human contact, she explains, "has a tremendous ability to level out or eliminate aggravation. It automatically reduces anxiety."
Among companies that do this well, with people answering phones, Rankin includes L.L. Bean, Land's End, and Hyatt.
She encourages people to communicate with companies. "When voice systems work well, compliment them. When they don't work well, let companies know they're going to lose your business."
Galbraith also suggests writing letters. Williams did just that after her experience with bereavement fares. When she complained about the poor customer service and her problems understanding agents' accents, the airline sent an apology letter and a travel coupon good for $75 off her next flight.
Elaine Bloom of Maplewood, N.J., sometimes goes to a company's website for a phone number – not an 800 number. When she recently had a problem at a Panera Bread bakery, she says, "I called a number and got to talk to someone in customer relations. That resulted in a callback from a district manager about the problem."
Nunley sees progress. More companies are conducting customer satisfaction surveys than in the past, he says. A few even tie customer satisfaction scores to senior management bonuses.
At the same time, he continues to be amazed when companies fail to take full advantage of the Web. Listing the 10 most frequently asked questions would reduce the number of calls.
When a knob broke on his 19-year-old washing machine, Nunley went to the company's website and plugged in the part number. "I ordered it, gave a credit- card number, and they shipped it. I had it in less than a week," he says.
Galbraith finds that for some top companies, among them Dell computers, there has been a reversal of the trend toward outsourcing. "When customers complain, they've brought customer service back to the US."
Among companies that outsource, John Bugh, North American president for Intelenet Global Services in Dallas, an India-based offshore company, sees progress.
"The training of agents is constantly reviewed and updated to ensure that the needs of client customers in the US are being met in the most consistent and effective manner possible," he says. "The reality is, you're never going to satisfy 100 percent of customers calling in."
As companies work to raise satisfaction levels, Galbraith offers a suggestion.
"I would like to see more organizations put the interest of the customer ahead of short-run profitability," he says. "In the long run, that's going to buy you customer loyalty. People remember those things and go to the [business] that has the best customer service."