All of our representatives are currently assisting other callers. Please stay on the line for two hours of saxophone samba and we’ll answer your call at the exact moment you take a bathroom run.

Here’s how much I hate calling customer service: I wasted $120 over six months just to avoid calling AT&T to turn off data service on two iPads I was no longer using.

Customer service calls are excruciating. But what is the alternative? I asked an executive in the industry and he recommended... not calling.

“Voice in itself is a very old, tough and unproductive way to communicate,” says Robert LoCascio, the CEO of LivePerson

Instead, last week I opened Facebook, searched for AT&T, then tapped on the message button on its page. I typed: “Hi, I need to make a change to my AT&T Wireless plan. Can you help with that?”

Lo and behold, they could. A service rep messaged me back, gathered my details and got me sorted. I never had to hunt for a human, repeat myself or endure a sales pitch.

The biggest shift in customer service since the 1-800 number is underway. Some 20 million businesses now use Facebook Messenger each month to talk with customers. Apple is leading companies as diverse as Lowes, Marriott and Wells Fargo into taking service queries, scheduling deliveries and even paying for purchases over iMessage. And Facebook’s WhatsApp, already used by 3m businesses, including many outside the US, is building a business around charging companies to better serve us over chats.

“We see more and more chatting, texting, social media interactions — and fewer and fewer voice interactions every year,” says Jamie Barton, executive vice president of sales and service at AT&T.

Business messaging isn’t the same as chatbots, which are programmes that try — and often fail — to provide automatic answers to questions. This is about talking to real people, though some companies blend both automation and humans.

Messaging a business can bring new kinds of frustrations. Not every company is prepared for 21st-century customer service; some put the newbie employees on chat duty — others rely too much on robots.

And of course, there are times when you are still better off picking up the phone. (The website contacthelp.com can help you find the real-deal numbers.)

But since getting hip to chat, I’ve had remarkably useful interactions with AT&T, with Apple to fix a problem with my iMac, and even with Harry & David to send my mom a surprise present. Now I’m believer that before calling, you should let your fingers do some tapping.

It turns out we’re nicer on text. No wonder texting businesses leave many people happier.

LivePerson, a company that makes support software used by 18,000 companies, says when given the option, 70 per cent of people chose a “message us” button over a “call us” button on a company website or app. And it says customer satisfaction rates are 25pc higher for chatting and messaging than for calling.

“Voice in itself is a very old, tough and unproductive way to communicate,” says Robert LoCascio, the CEO of LivePerson.

Chat and messaging systems offer relief in a few ways. We’re not stuck waiting on the phone, listening to Muzak, growing angrier by the minute. “You can type on a keyboard anywhere, including multitasking while watching TV with your family,” says Matt Price, a senior vice president at Zendesk, a customer service software maker. Text is ideal for routine questions as well as for conveying technical information you don’t want to get lost in translation.

Employees can handle multiple text conversations at once — but only one call at a time. “What this has really delivered is the art of time management,” says Nick Drake, the executive vice president of marketing and digital experience at T-Mobile, which was one the first companies to push big into messaging. His agents use software that triages incoming conversations and puts the most urgent ones on top.

What about tone? You do lose some emotional context over text. When I chatted with Apple support about the issue with my iMac, the employee smartly asked early in the conversation for me to explain what solutions I had already attempted as a way to size up my technical competence. A well-placed emoji can also help.

And then there’s the employee perspective: frustrated customers can be really, really mean over the phone, which is one reason many call centers have high turnover rates. Several of the companies I spoke with report customers tend to chill out when mediated through text, making support a more pleasant job.

“Although someone could write ‘I hate you,’ and do it in all caps, it is very different than when somebody is screaming in your ear,” says LivePerson’s LoCasio.

Five tips for better customer service

We asked industry insiders what they do to get better service. Here are their suggestions.

• Before you dial, see if there are better options, including chat, messaging, self-service websites and schedule-a-call services.

• Customers receive the fastest support when reaching out at 2pm, according to Zendesk.

• Be prepared to repeat yourself: most companies aren’t sophisticated enough to know about the last time you called or to connect you across all their different forms of contact.

• If you’re trying to quit a service and get sent to someone for hard sell, just politely say you know it is a win-back line and you’re really not interested in the service any more.

• The emergency button is Twitter. You can always tweet at a company, or its CEO — most are looking out for it. Just remember whatever you’re saying is public.

—The Washington Post Service

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 13th, 2018

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