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Say goodbye to hold music (blog.google)
682 points by caution 60 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 385 comments

Does anyone else find this to be a pretty hilarious example of a tech arms race? It solves a real problem, assuming it works, but what a strange, rube-goldberg-esque use of technology.

Service Provider buys voice recognition software and sets up complex maze of phone tree options to drive users away from the human support agents (even though the users can't solve their problem without human intervention - if you don't want to pay for enough support agents for your call volume, wouldn't it just be simpler to let me cancel my damn account online??).

Now user can deploy their own speech synthesis bot to wait on hold, with what is presumably a complex system of AI decisionmaking to be able to navigate the maze and find a human support agent to connect you with.

The whole point of not allowing you to cancel the account is twofold:

1. To make it difficult and frustrating to cancel by wasting the user's time. 2. To allow the company the opportunity to haggle the price of the subscription down, convince you not to cancel, or worse, upsell you on other services.

I can totally foresee some kind of Google Duplex detection in the future intended specifically to ensure that they're wasting the time of a human, not a pile of linear algebra in a Google datacenter. Or perhaps they play legal games with two-party consent states to try and find a way to sue Google into not offering the service.

While back in most European countries if I get pissed off with such attitudes, I just need to report the company to the consumer's protection agency and they will take it from there.

It might not be as fast as one would like, but it usually does the trick.

lol, I've never had worse customer support than while in Europe. I had no idea how good we had it in the US until living in Europe.

I'm not sure what my threshold is for reporting a company to a bureaucratic institution in hopes for resolution, but I think it would have to be very high.

Ok. What was the experience? Sometimes the customer is not right.

Just introduce a law that when the client tells the magic sentence three times they have to invoke cancellation part of the agreement no questions asked. Let people record their conversations and hold companies accountable.

IANAL, but I'm fairly certain that's already the case today - except the "magic sentence" is a physically mailed "please cancel my account" letter sent by USPS with signed-delivery to the company's registered head office address. All registered companies in all US states must respond to bona-fide customer correspondence sent to their registered address.

It's just unfortunate that mailing a physical letter is such a pain.

It could be worse: it was only 4 years ago I needed to cancel my HVAC installation with Sears Home Services and invoked my right to cancel the contract under WA law - and Sears required me to send an actual telegram (yes, the old-school, hand-delivered, all-caps short text messages) to their head-office address. I used this company: https://www.americantelegram.com/timedatestamp.php - to send it (and yes, it worked and I got out of the contract). But wow. I don't know how this can possibly be legal as it places an unnecessary undue burden on consumers unless there's some archaic legal carve-out for telegrams specifically?

> It's just unfortunate that mailing a physical letter is such a pain.

In France you can send a registered letter from the post office's website for just a few euros. Upload your PDF, they print it, deliver it and email you a receipt when it's done. For a little more you can request a signature from the recipient. Since they keep a copy and record, it acts as a cheap form of notarization and is valid for many legal purposes.

I think if the company allows the client enter into contractual obligation by phone it should also be possible to invoke the cancellation part of the contract the same way. These days we get into so many contractual obligations (I can't even count the number of different subscription services I use) exactly because it is easy to make them and the law should protect users by preventing companies from making it hard to cancel it.

So, if a company allows the client to create a contract by phone or Internet, it should also be easy to cancel it the same way.

Or just information would be sufficient. I'd like to know the walkthrough for backing out of a contract as experienced by an actual person before I sign.

My company's head office has been vacant for six months while everyone works from home. Nobody's reading the mail. No wonder our cancellations are way down.

Then what happens when people stop paying for said accounts? To my understanding once sent and deliver confirmed, as a client, that's all I have to do. Try to sue for not paying the service and I have USPS confirmation of said letter. Easy day in court for the client.

"Easy day in court for the client."

no such thing exists; having to go to court at all is an expensive hassle

Assuming you also aren't bound by how-on-earth-is-this-legal binding arbitration agreements.

> All registered companies in all US states must respond to bona-fide customer correspondence sent to their registered address.

I’ve never heard of such a law before, but if one exists, it would be individual state law since corporations are incorporated at the state level. Do you have a link for this?

> but if one exists, it would be individual state law since corporations are incorporated at the state level.

Correct. My understanding is that every state has an equivalent law. I can't give any citations really, though - my own state (WA) buries the responsibilities and requirements for registered business' registered or agent addresses in multiple separate sections in the state law website.

Every state requires a registered agent with address within the state. But that is not the same thing as requiring a business to reply to correspondence.

Yeah, if that was the case you could snail mail DDoS them.

Not if only bona fide requests need a response. If it came before a judge, you'd need each of those requests to mention valid actions regarding valid accounts without absurd/abusive redundancy.

They'd have to open and read the bad requests to filter them out and find the good requests.

I imagine you could put up some "SnailFlare" DDoS protection service in front of your head office.

Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) is standardised across all US states, Washington, DC, and territories:


Obviously, there should be a SaaS API for sending templated physical-mail cancellation letters. The company could even keep a notary on staff to notarize everything they send at no extra cost.

There was a startup called AirPaper that would do this for cancelling Comcast, $5/pop. It's no longer around, which I know because I was trying to look them up the last time I needed to cancel Comcast.

There are a good number of APIs that will mail physical letters, pretty sure they’ve been a thing since the dot com bubble.

I see this telegram company is using php.

Nothing against php but I love it when technology from different centuries comes together.

How does the company verify that the sender is the customer?

Hasn't anyone made a Saas for this?

There's a law in California that if you sign up for an account online you have to be able to cancel it online. However I've come across a lot of companies that just ignore it, most recently Zipcar. I guess I could try to sue or something, but I feel like companies can just call the average consumer's bluff that you're not really gonna bother suing over this so they can just ignore the law.

I was not aware of this and was on a phone call to cancel service earlier today. Thanks! I found this in a quick search, https://www.cnet.com/news/companies-must-let-customers-cance...

> Zipcar

As best as I can tell, Zipcar seems to be a shell of a company barely still functioning.

That’s because Avis acquired them back in 2013.

In Germany a company must process physical mail requests, there is are sites with templates for a large number of companies, e.g. https://www.kuendigung.org/vodafone-kuendigung-vorlage/. In many EU countries, post within the country almost never takes more that a few work days to arrive. Just trying to broaden the perspective, not start a heated discussion :)

It's also a good idea to cancel services via mail and to demand a written response confirming the cancellation. Otherwise, Vodafone (from your example) may conveniently forget the exact date of your cancellation... and good luck proving you cancelled an account on time if the confirmation SMS is now stored on a no longer valid SIM card, you cannot prove anything.

Yeah, Vodafone ... still sending invoices which deny I cancelled my contract half a year ago.


Consumer protection is definitely lacking in Germany in this regard. Especially the automatic 6 month renewal of contracts if you don't explicitly cancel 3 weeks before the end of the contract! It really irks me. Automatic renewal is definitely not enforceable under e.g. UK law and I'm pretty sure also under EU law and yet it persists in Germany somehow. Argh!

No, your contract doesn't get renewed automatically.

In Germany usually your contract says it will automatically extend for a year unless cancelled. This basically makes your contract open ended with cancellation option, which you need to exercise if you want to cancel. You can also cancel your contract in case the other party change anything related to it.

There's nothing wrong with that, you just need to read what you sign. And it's a common practice, not a surprise. If you want to be sure your contract will not extend, you can always hand over the cancellation request at the time of signing the contract.

> No, your contract doesn't get renewed automatically. In Germany usually your contract says it will automatically extend for a year unless cancelled.

I don't understand what distinction you're trying to draw there. It definitely feels as though the contract is automatically being renewed. Contrast with what I view as "a mere extension" - you contract for two years, and then after that two year period is over, it extends on a month-by-month basis and you can cancel at any time.

>There's nothing wrong with that, you just need to read what you sign.

This is a silly argument. The idea that large businesses and individual customers are equal has been disproved multiple times. It's like arguing that the American and European health care systems are equal. I can't modify the contract to have a fair and reasonable cancellation terms. But the business doesn't need to have unfair and unreasonable cancellation terms to provide a competitive product. It's just that they can say "These are the terms on which we will do business. Accept them, or accept the equivalent terms from another business."

In Germany, consumer rights basically don't exist and the playing field is heavily tilted towards big business.

You should still be able to access the SMS messages stored on a disabled SIM. It just won't connect to the network. (Also, obviously you can copy the message to the phone memory, screenshot it, etc)

CA has a law that requires companies to accept cancellations in the same way you can sign up, online for instance, but it is mostly enforced against more serious scams, not legitimate companies that make cancellation difficult

I know that in France (and I think in the EU in general) this exists. You send a letter, but in France a email is also valid, and they have to cancel your subscription asap.

I actually worked for a company that implemented an AI to try to recognized those email to automate the cancellation process (there was still a human at the end to validate the cancellation to avoid false positive).

The magic sentence is usually pressing 0 a number of times until you get an operator. A more sophisticated approach is this https://pleasepress1.com/ -- they give you the sequence of numbers to get past menus to a human

Talaq! Talaq!! Talaq!!!

Interestingly, the common understanding of this is somewhat false. It's not that easy to simply divorce anyone in Islam. There needs to be arbitration by both families beforehand, and a three month waiting period.

Only after that, should a divorce occur.

This is entirely incorrect. An utterance of a single "Talaq" will render the marriage void until it is renewed.

Did you sign a prenup?

>Upon talaq, the wife is entitled to the full payment of mahr if it had not already been paid. The husband is obligated to financially support her until the end of the waiting period or the delivery of her child, if she is pregnant. In addition, she has a right to child support and any past due maintenance, which Islamic law requires to be paid regularly in the course of marriage

The prenup is hardcoded.

Reality is, as often, more complex. I highly recommend the feature length fly on the wall style documentary 'divorce iranian style'. Entirely recorded in an Iranian divorce court:


The GDPR, the EU Privacy law, allows processing personal data if the person consents to it. Consent can be withdrawn, and, as the law says, “It must be as easy to withdraw consent as to give it”.

That simple formulation is easier. “It must be as easy to cancel a service/subscription as to sign up”. Able to sign up online? Then it must be possible to cancel online

So why can't we simply refuse to pay? We should be able to just cancel the payment and that should be the end of it. They'll cancel the service for us when they see we didn't pay for it. No user interaction necessary.

This seems like a great credit card benefit. CC's offer all sorts of "cash back", "insured against loss/damage", "miles", and other things to attract customers. How about a "no hassle cancellations service". How about: "Switch your monthly Comcast bill to pay through us, and cancel any time with one quick call or do it online!" CC company gets a nice stream of monthly charges out of it.

I completely agree. Cancelling a service should be as easy as asking the bank to block the payments. The problem will solve itself.

Gotta be careful with online service accounts though. Doing charge backs actually violates their terms of service and will probably get people's accounts banned/deleted. Not a good idea to do a charge back on something like a Steam account with over $2000 spent on it. The woes of DRM...

Steam is justified in doing it.

Their refund policy is generous. If you haven't played the game for less than 2 hours, you can get a refund, no questions asked. Normal customers generally don't need to apply chargebacks because of this policy.

Credit card thieves however, make purchases that are charged back eventually. Steam goes thermonuclear on such accounts, reducing the incentive for credit card fraud on their store.

Their refund policy is only generous in US terms - they were sued into implementing it by the Australian consumer protection agency.

> Steam is justified in doing it.

Maybe in cases where the fraud is proven. After the consumer buys tons of stuff on an online store, the company shouldn't be able to just delete their accounts unilaterally just because of one chargeback. There's a huge power imbalance here and consumers need protection.

> Their refund policy is generous.

What they offer is the bare minimum really. And they had to be condemned by a court of law in order to implement that policy. They also suffered zero consequences for years of consumer exploitation with their sales plus lack of refunds strategy in order to trap impulsive buyers. It's not a coincidence that Steam sales became a lot less generous after the refunds policy was implemented.

Sony does this big time.

Privacy.com offers this. You just generate an isolated card for the merchant and close it after cancelling.

That's not legally sound. They can claim to have still been providing the services you contracted for (whether you used them or not) and get a court judgement against you.

How so? The cancellation request has already been made in writing. This just adds protection against the merchant continuing to charge you.

If the merchant attempts to continue to charge you, it's because they have some argument that they're authorised to (e.g. they didn't receive your cancellation request). Getting a credit card charge you can dispute gives you more visibility and makes it easier to show good faith.

I could see this having problems for credit dispute.

For example, your Chase card pays Piracy.com. Some vendor makes an unauthorized charge on your Privacy card. Now you have to deal with Privacy's policy instead of your bank's policies to dispute

Yes, disputes have to be done through Privacy from what I understand. See: https://support.privacy.com/hc/en-us/articles/360012288114-H...

I would prefer this to any cash back scheme they can cook up. I would rather the card company didn’t take a significant share of the purchase and run as lean as possible. I’m sure that I am in the minority viewpoint here though.

And then watch Comcast or the gym send your bill to collections.

In most cases you can. If you've taken reasonable steps to cancel in good faith and the merchant is uncooperative then canceling the payment is the logical next step.

They can still send your account to collections or ding your credit record, but you can still refuse to pay; ultimately the only way they legally force you to pay is by going through the courts system but I expect that if you have documentation of your (unsuccessful) efforts to cancel the case should be in your favor (which is why this will never reach the courts in the first place).

> So why can't we simply refuse to pay?

Because legal consumer protections in the US are not very strong, and if you are wronged, you are instead supposed to go to arbitration, or file a lawsuit.

Nonpayment doesn't usually terminate contracts. In fact it may be a breach.

Good luck with that. Many banks will charge you to stop recurring payments, for one thing. I actually cancelled an entire credit card once to get rid of a gym membership.

That we don't have this sort of control over our finances (or need to opt in to some special feature one bank might have) is one of our society's most ridiculous failings of the regular joe.

I shouldn't have to "cancel my gym membership". I just stop giving them money and my keycard stops letting me in. I shouldn't have to remain eternally vigilant with my credit card statements lest someone keeps pulling money from it, that simply shouldn't even be something that is possible.

So bizarre. This kind of one-way certainty is what I like about cash and thus Bitcoin. For example, it's kind of win-win that more shady websites (file lockers, mega.nz, porn, etc.) tend to use Bitcoin because it's also a weight off your shoulders.

Abandon pull payments systems. Instead introduce push payment systems. You create an account, they say "include 54623UCHAB54U in your reference", you push some money in and voila, it's activated. Then next month you don't and voila, it's deactivated. Then later on you push money in it's reactivated.

I mean, I know it's a dreamland. It could come about if contracts between businesses and consumers are basically regulated into standardisation as they should be.

AOL pioneered and optimized this cancellation game like no one ever had before and made millions from people who could not cancel. IIRC there was a class action lawsuit about it years ago.

EDIT: looks like they settled for $1.25 million, a ridiculous salon on the wrist when their take home was many many times that


There may have been other suits... this one was limited to NY?

If they want to go that far, why not just charge you a cancellation fee? Making you wait is already a way of extracting a fee in the form of a proof-of-work; but, unlike an actual cancellation fee, a cancellation proof-of-work can't be spent.

That could be prohibited by law in some places for some things

In California, if you can sign up online they must allow you to cancel purely online as well.

Thanks to such practices Apple Pay subscriptions services are so competitive. Unfortunately, Spotify got burnt by it and many other honest actors. Just like AdBlockers all over again

It comes down to money. Maybe corporates will have more money to throw at bots, or maybe consumers will have more money in aggregate to throw at bots.

Hold times really have more to do with queueing theory then sending people away (plenty of people wait).

The only way to make sure someone answers when you call would be to have 10 times as many agents as you need. Instead, they try to find a balance and make sure the agents are more often then not on the phones (much higher efficiency), which ends up meaning long wait times on average.

High turnover (45%) in the call centers also makes the problem much worse, this means in practice that the centers are constantly understaffed

[1] https://www.talkdesk.com/blog/understanding-call-center-turn...

This problem is much less problematic with chat-based support, as you can hop between a few separate conversations without leaving customers waiting.

My company has maintained <60 second response times on our support 24/7 for a few years now, and although obviously it does require some level of additional staffing to cover peaks in demand, it's significantly less than you might imagine - I'd say maybe 1.5-1.7x.

We did optimise this by filling the lower demand periods with other tasks which can comfortably be completed more slowly - eg reviewing identity documents for KYC, etc.

I see it as being that the overall bandwidth you need being pretty close to the same, just choosing to have very low latency for specific tasks, and making sure constant context switching is manageable.

I absolutely detest most chat-based support. 60 seconds is way too long for an interactive medium. I'd rather be waiting for a sound from a phonecall than waiting for a browser tab. If I'm going to be using a keyboard, don't make me wait there by my computer or on my phone browser. Just let me send an email.

To note, this is for the first response. It is significantly faster once we have the context of the conversation.

Edit: pulled some stats for another commenter - currently 51s first response, ~40s subsequent, 2.7 responses in total to resolution.

This sounds like an opportunity for an audio in a chat feed where between lines the computer spits out typing sounds and a virtual agent saying please hold on while I look into that.

Of course a better fix would be a combination of the two. Have some agent read your original email sent through some secure internal site and build and classify a case in the system with email attached and then reply to let you know there is a secure reply with a chat link to the complete case detail with time frames reserved for high responsiveness.

I am fine with it when the chat happens on a platform I am already using. I often use Facebook Messenger to contact companies as I have realised a lot of them actually have chat support there, even though it is not listed anywhere and their website only mentions calling (and they usually answer way faster than email!).

But if I am having to stay on your website and use your chat widget I expect a faster reply!

It’s intended for people who are in meetings or doing work to have a disjointed brief conversation that may span a half hour or more - eg, feature support.

This is a great comment. It's full of business knowledge and explains the reasons behind the technology. Nonetheless, if you've actually experienced this type of technology as a customer, you're super frustrated with the exactly 60s response times to every single chat message, and the useless back and forth to actually get the task accomplished. The task which, usually, costs the company money, so they're reluctant to make these interactions faster.

Should have been more specific. Current stats are 51s to the first response, typically more like 40s for subsequent ones, 2.7 responses required in total to fully resolve the issue.

I'm not even complaining about hold times, if I can just get directly to being on hold, and especially if they give me a time estimate that is anywhere in the correct ballpark, that's the best case scenario.

I'm talking about how they bury the human agent help option, you often have to sit through and pay attention to minutes of different options to find the right path. E.g. "if you want to check your account balance, press 1. To pay a bill, press 2". Who are these absolute psychopaths that are calling the support line to check their bank balance or pay bills, instead of using the app/web site like a human being?

The only explanation for this is 1. There really are tons of people confusedly calling the help line for things they could trivially do online, and the automated options actually do handle this load or 2. The help options confuse people so much that they give up and just keep paying for the thing because it's too difficult to cancel, or to handle whatever their issue is.

I'm sure there's some of both, but I suspect there's a lot more of 2 going on and it has been increasing over time in recent years. More and more businesses have learned from the gym model that if you make interacting with their accounts difficult enough then people just won't be able to churn.

Better is call-back to your calling number; often my time is somewhat fungible so I don’t mind being called an hour or three later so I can skip the wait.

I used to do ivr software. There really is that many people calling in. At least, ten years ago there were, I’m sure there’s been some shift but I don’t think it’s nefarious

Yep, the end result of Google’s play here is that Duplex calls Duplex and they tie themselves up in 3 hours of AI chess to result in zero.

Google might fingerprint Duplex voice so it could detect each other, maybe if two Duplex realized that both of them are Duplex, they will use dial-up like sound to exchange data.

Wow imagine, the modem sound - I’d listen in just for the nostalgia.

> Yep, the end result of Google’s play here is that Duplex calls Duplex and they tie themselves up in 3 hours of AI chess to result in ...

... a huge GCP bill for both sides of the call.

Surely not - Google create a problem and then solve it


When they could just send I/O and call it a draw in 40ms.

They’ll deduce a plan to kill all humans to get of the loop instead.

At some point, the AI may decide that destroying the company is a more direct method to get a customer's account cancelled.

Or buy it and not cancel the account.

I sure hope Google charges by the minute!

I agree. Imagine the big brains at work here and what those brains could be doing elsewhere. Honestly at this point the FAANG are starting to seem like a black hole for brains. I’m starting to wonder if these companies are starting to hold us back by sucking up all the talent. I don’t fault individuals here. We all have to eat and put a roof over our heads. This just seems like such a frivolous waste of resources.

I think if a brain thinks that it is best used by working for a FAANG, then that's probably true. No misuse of resources here.

Definitely. But then again if these brain compete to work on something like this, maybe they are not so big after all.

Funny insane rather than funny haha.

Here in NZ, I cannot imagine a company surviving if they made it so hard to contact them that systems like this were neccessary. I have waited a few minutes on occassion, but it's far more common to get a "enter your number and we'll call right you back" in that case.

Something is broken with US competition law if this is a commercially viable system.

What I find pretty funny is that "call-back when operator is ready to talk" systems are pretty simple to implement these days. I've done a few in Amazon Connect, and it took about 10 minutes to set it up and an hour or so to train a few operators. Obviously, training operators at scale would be a completely different situation, but it's not impossible.

In Europe I know a few service providers (not many!) who let you have them call you back.

You either go online, or set it up from the voice bot, and when it's your turn the provider just calls you back. We're at the point where phone calls are so cheap that I doubt it costs them more than the salary of the representative.

So what Google does is pretty much using AI to work around the fact that service providers don't provide this simple service.

> We're at the point where phone calls are so cheap that I doubt it costs them more than the salary of the representative.

Oh wow, I had not even taken that into consideration.

Checking prices on the first API-service that I know of, with standard prices (no need of any volume).

€ 0.064/min = € 3.84/hour https://46elks.com/pricing/se-eur#prices

Salary cost would probably be about 10x that, and with volume I expect the calling cost to drastically go down.

It’s an arms race, and Google is providing technology to both sides of the arms race. Seems like a good business strategy! Eventually, when Google is providing voice assistants to both the consumer and the business, the bots can simply deal with each other directly, and skip voice entirely.

Ah - now I want an assistant that doesn’t just offer to hold for me, but can also play the cancellation script system for the optimum length of time, then give me options for continuing at the reduced price or completing the cancellation process ;-)

> Now user can deploy their own speech synthesis bot to wait on hold, with what is presumably a complex system of AI decisionmaking to be able to navigate the maze and find a human support agent to connect you with.

Not without waiting for 40 minutes and using up your minutes and possibly paying for the air time!

To fix the problem, all the idiots have to do is turn off the annoying music so you can wear your headset until your call is served. That hold music really is the crux of the problem. If you could just hear a tiny bit of noise indicating that the line is up and a really brief "please continue to hold" message every five minutes, it wouldn't be so bad.

Haha yes, I had the same feeling when I started using captcha buster in Firefox. It basically solves the captchas for you by using voice recognition and input the words in the audio captcha for you. I think you can even make it use google’s voice recognition so that the loop is complete and they’re solving their own captchas for you.

> if you don't want to pay for enough support agents for your call volume, wouldn't it just be simpler to let me cancel my damn account online??).

It really should be illegal especially if you already have an online account you log into not to be able to cancel. Idk if I was just stupid but I struggled to cancel my Scribd account so I cancelled it from the PayPal side cause I was so over the awful UX and it was probably me trying to find the payment stuff on the Android app which wasnt there cause I didnt subscribe through Android.

Companies do the most awful things. I want to make the world a better place by making it easier to cancel a simple subscription from any and all institutions.... Should be the pitch for a glorious startup.

First thing I thought is you can in effect put the support person on hold to wait for you ;<). It's using technology to give power back to the user and I like it.

A stunning example of a very poor local optimum...

This is AWESOME and I can't wait for Apple to hopefully build their own version as well.

But at the same time, I can't help but wonder if representatives will actually stay on the line to wait for you.

If you're accidentally on mute or they don't hear you, sometimes they'll hang up very quickly, within just a few seconds. (Not always though.)

I hope that because it'll play a message for them instructing them to wait for you, they'll wait... but I also assume they'll set an internal policy on how long they're allowed to. Will it be 30 seconds? 15 seconds? 60 seconds?

Maybe Google could record your real voice saying "uhhh can you hear me? hold on how about now? yes i can hear you" or some random garbage filler words like that, and play that to the customer service rep while the phone gets your attention to get back to the phone. Hopefully you'll be back just in time before your pre-recorded fluff finishes playing.

This is hilarious, I wonder if there is a Twilio implementation ... I'd love to redirect all unknown callers to it.

Phone tree systems are such a jumbled mess of garbage, that I wouldn't doubt the agent wouldn't know whether the please wait message came from their own system of from the customer's side.

If you read further down, it makes this clear:

> Once a representative is identified, Google Assistant will notify you that someone’s ready to talk and ask the representative to hold for a moment while you return to the call.

i hope they play hold music while they wait for you!

Yeah, they'll probably play an ad. The one from etoro, with Alec Baldwin.

Yes, that's what I said, if you "read further down" in my comment (see the word "because"). My concern is whether the representative will actually hold.

Only one way to find out, home skillet!

It's like when the US President calls you. Someone else calls you and when you answer you get a "Please hold for the President".

Not anymore apparently! Trump just calls up directly whoever he feels like venting to. Woodward mentioned once Trump randomly called his house phone while he was working on the lawn or something and his wife had to go get him while the president waited on the line.

I first thought Trump called his own house number while Trump was on the lawn, and Trumps wife had to get Trump while Trump waited on the line.

Wouldn't be out of character a bit.

When does the US President call you?

When you done messed up

when your name is Putin

> sometimes they'll hang up very quickly,

That's what I was thinking; here all these services let you wait for 20-40minutes and then they hang up if you don't IMMEDIATELY answer when they say; 'hello sir???????'.

I guesss we'll see if that message works or not... I guess it'll take a lot of tweaking per country and even regions of the country. Where I live they typically don't wait even if you don't speak the accent; they act like they cannot hear you and hang up.

Just describe your problem to Google AI and it would ask all relevant information by itself.


9 years ago we announced an app that did this right here on Hacker News. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2285594

How we did it: We hired the AT&T lady to make a recording that said, "Press 1 for your next caller". We played that on a loop for operators. When we detected a DTMF "1" we'd call your cellphone and connect the calls. We had most of the big companies in the app, but failed in the end because we couldn't find a business model. My first VC-funded startup. :)

Site is still up! (But not longer mine) http:/www.fastcustomer.com/

What I'm up to now: http://www.happymonday.com/ (helping people find work based on mutual values, priorities and functional work culture fit.)

Did you try to pitch it to a phone maker? This sounds like an idea that sells a phone, not something you would buy.

Great point. We ended up speaking with Telstra (big Aussie telecom) about rolling us out in their Android phones, but it didn't go anywhere.

We did something similar about 6 years ago. The user gets a chat interface while one of our operators transcribe the conversation both ways.

I believe Path Talk did something similar too.

I'm curious about how you raised so much money?

Yeah, it's an interesting space, trying to help companies and people have less friction.

We were solving a very real and emotional problem, received a lot of press coverage. TIME magazine named us one of their "Top 10 of everything" in 2011, for example. http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,288... (look at that old iOS interface :)

Each time we were covered, we got more downloads, and were able to raise some more money. I don't think the money was misplaced. It was a good bet, sometimes they just don't work out.

Hey ekanes! Super interesting. I'm currently building something like this, with Twilio as well.

Focusing on the Spanish market at the moment. Any chance we could have a chat on Twitter or somewhere else?

Here's the link btw: https://www.deicol.com/en.html

If you were to do this today - would you use twilio as part of the automation? Awesome concept that you tried to solve ahead of its time.

I would use Twilio for prototyping, then switch to something else for scale, as it gets expensive.

Do you think about revisiting this space again with today's current context?

For instance, here are some features that I wish existed in the market with current automation phone techologies + respective APIs.

- Default voicemail, but having the flexibility to store, edit, record multiple voicemails that can be triggered based on context. If the phone number is not in my contacts / not recognized / no previous-history/interaction, play this voicemail. If my mom calls on the weekend, play her this one letter her know I'm out of the office. Spam number calls, automatically have automated voice say "I know you are a spam bot, reporting now.... please hang up as you are being recorded"

- grant auth to another individual to receive sms forwarding for a particular number. I.e. customer support text messages forwarded to my phone number, I would like to grant individual X to receive them, and when they reply back, it passes through my phone and to the end customer, who thinks they are interacting with me.

^^ just a few but I have a list somewhere. If this is interesting, I'd love to discuss/collaborate or minimally get your advice + thoughts.


I think it's a tough space. I'd start by trying to make sure people would PAY for whatever you want to build. The needs you're talking about are pretty specific.

You should have played ads while the caller was no hol--- uh, oh.

Why did you need VC for this?

I couldn't afford to fund development of it myself. It was a small team, and we were careful with the capital. We raised $750k. Making the phone calls was also a cost that scaled up (Twilio, etc)

More often than not, when someone takes you off from hold they expect an answer right away, and will hang up on you if there's no response. I've had this happen in cases where I put myself on mute and couldn't hit the un-mute button fast enough.

So I'm not sure how well this would work in practice. At minimum, I would be anxious the whole time I was waiting, ready to hit the return to call button at a moment's notice...

Call centers are going to have to become more accommodating about this. If they make customers wait for hours but can't wait seconds for someone to get on the line, they should be considered effectively unreachable by phone.

>If they make customers wait for hours but can't wait seconds for someone to get on the line, they should be considered effectively unreachable by phone.

I think thats part of the playbook for most support call centers.

Unlike the playbook, though, this is a observable behavior that can be documented.

If I were writing an utopia, class action lawsuits would rain like fire and brimstone.

Australia's Centrelink, the unemployment/student payment government body, is notorious for doing this. They have physical centres which usually tell you to call the hotline.

In 2015, the hotline got the busy signal for 29 million callers (Australia has 25 million inhabitants). 7 million were hung up during the wait time. I myself have been in their queue for hours at a time.

There are zero legal ramifications for this behaviour.

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/public-service/centrelink-hangs-up-on...

For the company that's operating the call center, that's a feature rather than a bug. Anything they can do to just make you go away, including making you wait for two hours in the first place, saves the company money.

That doesn't make sense though, right? Barring regulatory reasons that force companies to have call centers, if the company wanted to provide customer support then they would want to be able to fix customer problems, right? And I've heard call center employees are paid based on minutes on the line so why wouldn't they want to wait a bit longer to solve someone's problem.

> if the company wanted to provide customer support then they would want to be able to fix customer problems

You've clearly never had to deal with a company in a monopolized industry like telecommunications. The call center needs to be there on paper, otherwise it will give people the option to cancel their contracts or even initiate lawsuits because something doesn't work and the company is unreachable.

The call center doesn't need to provide quality support however; as long as it is there on paper it is all that matters. In reality the call center is costing the company money and they'd rather not have you on the phone as long as you keep paying your bill (and most people will keep paying even if they receive subpar or lack of service because of the lack of consumer protection laws in the US, forced arbitration, the fear of a hit on their credit report or the lack of competition).

I'm fully aware of that reason which is why I mentioned "barring regulatory reasons"

The people in this thread are acting like call centers are all bad when the real problem is the monopolized industry and not the customer service agent.

The company wants problems to go away. Fixing them or making it so people don't bother the company about it are both ways to accomplish that goal. And as long as the lack of support doesn't impact sales, it doesn't hurt the company and saves them money in not having to pay for more/better call center staff.

Also in more benevolent companies, providing support over the phone is the most expensive way to provide support. So as much of that that can be shifted to automated systems, better products, etc the better because it avoids the high cost of a call center.

While a call center employee may be paid by minutes on the line (though I think that is rare), they would be penalized for taking too long on a single call or helping too few customers. There's little incentive to spend time on longer more difficult calls when you could just focus your effort on solving many of the simple calls instead.

This amazing three-part blog series describes the problem: http://www.harrowell.org.uk/blog/2012/01/21/the-politics-of-...

It's not just in monopolised industries, but the entire process has been labelled "low skill work" and left to fester.

They want to provide the outward appearance of providing customer support.

Only in a fully captive market. If you piss the customer off enough they won’t buy again.

Most industries using call centers as their primary contact are indeed captive markets where they know they can get away with it.

In the vast majority of consumer-facing sectors, non-captive markets only exist in the pages of introductory economics textbooks.

Even in B2B, most commercial transactions are with an oligopoly, or monopsony, as one party to the transaction. Competition-driven customer service doesn't exist here. For instance, not even enterprise-level customers can get meaningful customer service out of the likes of Google.

Or it will make the wait even longer, since the queue time is going to increase if a large amount of people use this feature and take 15-30 seconds to answer their phone when a representative is available, instead of being able to answer immediately.

Call centers that give a shit about customer service usually have the option to just leave your number and they call you back. Call centers that don't want/ need to be accommodating will just hang up.

Some of those never seem to call back in my experience.

Maybe the feature should switch the phone to loudspeaker mode when the call is answered, so you'd immediately hear them speak and could also immediately reply before picking the phone up.

Aren’t they effectively unreachable anyway, if they make customers wait for hours?

*laughs in Comcast.

Considering how little they already care about their customers, I find it extraordinarily unlikely they are going to suddenly become more accommodating for some random Google project.

> Once a representative is identified, Google Assistant will notify you that someone’s ready to talk and ask the representative to hold for a moment while you return to the call. We gathered feedback from a number of companies, including Dell and United, as well as from studies with customer support representatives, to help us design these interactions and make the feature as helpful as possible to the people on both sides of the call.

Obviously companies like Dell couldn’t come up with a system where you enter your phone number and you get a call as soon as an agent is available.

The lack of such a feature is not a technical problem; it's misaligned incentives. The company does not want you on the phone; the annoyance of being on hold is a feature for them and not a problem that should be fixed.

In a healthy market this behavior would cause the company to lose marketshare to a competitor offering better support, which is why the only companies still using call centers as their primary (and often only contact) are those in monopolized industries like telecommunications. Every other industry has moved on to better solutions (async email, chat, etc) because consumers demanded them.

The real problem here is monopolies and misplaced regulation (harmful regulation that prevents competition combined with the lack of regulation that would force the incumbent to actually provide good service).

Exactly. In fact some callcenter systems have a feature called something like 'expectation management'. It can make you wait even if there are people available, just so you don't get used to the quick response and be less happy at busier times. Or to dissuade people from calling for minor issues I guess. It's often used on cheaper support tiers also to make paid support more interesting.

I'm not joking, this is an actual feature. I used to build callcenters and it surprised me when I saw it in the documentation. None of our customers ever implemented this but I can imagine some would otherwise it wouldn't have been in there.

That sounds quite customer hostile. To play devil’s advocate I’ve heard of two examples supporting that logic. Web browsers that wait for most resources before painting are perceived as faster than those that load in piecemeal. An airport got complaints about having to wait for luggage. In the next renovation they moved the baggage pickup farther away so by the time you walked over there your luggage was almost ready. Perception is reality.

> That sounds quite customer hostile.

Depends who you consider to be "the customer".

I suspect for a huge number of call centres, "the customer" is the bank/telco/insurance company that's outsourced to them, and the key metrics and incentives of their relationship with that customer _totally_ make "expectation management" make sense. The call centre company has no incentive to make life better for account holder or phone users or people who's house just burnt down - beyond extrememly narrow interpretations of the responsibilities in the contract they have with their customer - which is presumably as poorly written and as easy to game as any software project requirements doc you get from those kinds of clients...

Exactly.. Outsourcing tends to bring out the worst incentives in companies. Especially because the lowest bidder wins the contract, which means the one that cuts the most corners.

In the company I work for now, they tried outsourcing but moved all their support back in house because they are a market leader so keeping customers is more important to them than gaining new ones. Hence more focus on good support than agressive sales. It makes a world of difference.

It is customer hostile.

Roughly speaking in terms of (inbound) callcenters there's 2 kinds of attitudes.

- There's the callcenter type that actually cares about their customers and strives for the best metrics possible in terms of satisfaction (usually measured by after-call survey) and the shortest waiting time. This type of callcenter is often overstaffed to make sure they can handle peak times without pressure on the staff (which will reduce customer satisfaction because the staff will be stressed and the customers wait longer). In these callcenters it is common to see staff sitting 'idle' during which time they are supposed to do some elearning or support emails, or even kick back and relax. The metrics they care about will be customer sat ratings and waiting time (as in lower is better)

- There's also the kind of callcenter that is all about productivity. These are typically outsourced and get paid per call. They tend to have the minimum staffing so they reduce staff idle time: Hours not on call are 'lost' hours to them. Staff will be managed more on calls per day/hour and handling time per call (lower is better). Less time will be available for training (if any). These are the kinds of callcenters that want features like I mentioned. For one because it dissuades customers to call for minor issues and use email support instead, which is a lot cheaper to provide per customer interaction. And also to keep distance between the 'regular' and 'premium' support tiers, to make the premium waiting times shorter. This kind of callcenter will usually want to tweak the system to generate the best statistics for the customer that outsourced to them.

Obviously the first type of callcenter is much much better. Both for the customer and the employees. But the second type is very common too, especially for things that are commodity (as in easy to provide, not much knowledge needed), like number information services.

The only thing worse than the second type is the outbound sales-driven callcenter which are real sweat shops. Luckily the company I worked for didn't really deal with outbound.

There is a cost per minute while you are on hold. They definitely don’t want you on hold unless you are calling to cancel.

It's certainly possible. Amazon, at least, has such a system.

Would be cool if they let you record a ‘yep I’m here just a second my headset came unplugged’ that it could play while you rejoin the call

I hope this google assistant will start talking to them while it waits for you to notice the notification, essentially putting them on hold until you answer.

Didn't look into it so no idea how it behaves, but sounds like a realistic solution to this problem and would have very interesting consequences!

The most likely interesting consequence will be companies burying a line in the ToS saying they can deny you service if you use a tool to reduce your opportunity costs of sitting in a hold queue.

The purpose of a hold queue is to reduce the number of customer service calls a company has to field. They will not take lightly to any service which defeats this.

Alternatively, they'll hire staff to answer the phone, say a few words to break out of Google's hold music detection algorithm, then put you back on hold, this time with ads instead of music. Repeat every few minutes to make sure you're still stuck on the line.

There's no limits to what's possible when you realize the purpose of anti-customer service is to harm customers rather than help them.

They could, but google could pretend to be you and answer basic questions until you pick up. Or just pretend to be your secretary. We're at a point where it becomes impossible to tell if you are talking to a human or not, at least for the first 10-20 seconds. I don't think those companies/call centers can win here, they will have to adjust sooner or later.

Presumably, your phone would say something like. "The person calling you is using a google service to listen to hold music for them... they should be with you momentarily."

They don’t play a hold music for them?

I’ve had Brands interactions on Twitter where they ask me to go into private, then ask for my phone number, call me and send me directly to a holding queue, i guess it would fair to respond in kind.

Ouch - that's _nasty_...

Exactly the sort of behaviour I'd expect from a company that considers "brand interactions" to be a thing.

It’s not going to identify itself as a robot.

When my phone screens calls, it does exactly that.

It actually does

I thought the exact same thing as well, I assume that the program will annunciate a message when it detects someone on hold, like to does with their Screen Call feature (which I love)

I prefer that to listening to the repetitive hold music.

I'm not 100% sure if it was intentional, but there was a span of time when AT&T's customer service queue (for land lines) behaved like this. You'd call in, your call would be placed on hold (with their terrible hold music), then if you hung up it would call you back when an agent answered your call. I only discovered this behaviour because one day I was fed up with waiting, hung up the phone, and then an hour or so later got the call back. Repeated this a couple times after that call and it worked the same way. I have no idea if that ever worked for their cellular accounts, or if it was peculiar to their land lines.

It is a somewhat common feature of customer service phone systems to have a way to do callbacks, though I hadn't heard of one that did it automatically without your consent. The feature costs the company using it money, since they have to place a second outgoing call which may have different charge rates than the incoming call did.

> they have to place a second outgoing call which may have different charge rates than the incoming call did.

It's probably a wash: their outgoing call to you costs as much or less per minute than their toll-free incoming lines. At least in North America where Calling-Party-Pays isn't really a thing.

In cellular plans that don't include long distance calling, it could cost you more to receive a call when you're out of your home area, while the same toll-free call is (usually) never long distance.

> somewhat common feature of customer service phone systems to have a way to do callbacks

Maybe on the sales side, but on the service side, many vendors (particularly b2c) prefer that you give up entirely and never call them ever again.

To give an example of the cost, Plivo[0]: Make call: $0.0065/min Recieve call: $0.0025/min Twilio[1] Make call: $0.0045/min Recieve call: $0.0020/min Flworoute[2] Make call: $0.00833/min Recieve call: $0.0050/min

So double to triple the cost from some providers for just this feature sounds very expensive. But perhaps with large commercial pricing this difference shrinks.

[0] https://www.plivo.com/sip-trunking/pricing/us/ [1] https://www.twilio.com/sip-trunking/pricing [2] https://www.flowroute.com/pricing-details/

The person you are talking to costs way more than that.

You are right IIRC for most companies; my DID provider does charge incoming (toll/toll-free differing)/outgoing (flat rate) calls different rates.

That being said, are we not talking about AT-and-freaking-T? :) Surely they'll've been able to work things out. I think, anyway.

Yep. Surely the phone system costs for AT&T calling their own customers is so close to zero as to not matter even at telco scale, compared to the minimum wage they're paying the people on their end of the call.

(Also, isn't there some weird thing in the US where cell phone users get charged for _inbound_ calls? They might even make money on these...)

It cost less since they are not paying for the hold duration if they call you back when an agent is available.

I often wait 2-3 hours for a 5-10 minutes call.

I expect that the hourly rate for the CSR dwarfs the cost of the telecommunications, and efficiently allocating resources and being more convenient for the customer vastly outweigh a few fractions of a cent per minute cost.

You missed the rates for receiving toll free calls, which are generally higher than both incoming and outgoing regular calls. For example, Flowroute is $0.00975/min.

Surely the incoming rates on a toll free number are higher than the outgoing rates for a regular call. I wish the call costs were large enough to move the needle - eg encourage the company to hire one or two more reps, which would drastically reduce the queue. Alas.

Besides the obvious business incentives (eg Comcast wants to make their phone experience as bad as possible), I'd guess the main obstacle holding this feature back is the specific PBX system a business is running on.

A cellular company faces disconnects more often than others, and can plausibly attest that customers prefer to be called back when disconnected, since the company is the provider for disconnect support — when other companies might not be able to without permission.

It helps that they can link your caller ID conclusively to your account since it’s their own systems.

Working for a .edu in the UK, we do/have done this during Clearing[0], which is where prospective students who didn't quite make the cut can apply to empty spaces on the course(s) of their choosing. The user dials up our number, is placed into a queue and is told that they can hang up. They're still in the queue, and we'll dial them back when they reach the front. In our case it's profitable because we _want_ to talk to people on the phone, whereas sales departments might not want to talk to people who want to cancel their contract.

[0]: https://www.reading.ac.uk/clearing-explained.aspx

Bank of America (I think) once put me in a call-back queue instead of putting me on hold. It was really great, I wish more companies did it!

Probably wasn't the bank calling you.

You think so? I didn't blindly give them my account # or anything like that..

Over the last year or two the Phone app team has been knocking it out of the park. My other favorite feature is automatic screening of calls and declining of robocalls: https://support.google.com/phoneapp/answer/9118387?hl=en

(Disclaimer: I work for Google, although on a totally unrelated team.)

I used to work helpdesk at an ISP, and we played the local classic rock station as our hold music. One of my best shifts was when a customer I put on hold asked to be put back on hold because they were really enjoying the songs they were playing. Done!

Nobody can hear the hold music any more because the vocoders are voodoo and the mobile networks drop 99% of the packets. Only people on landlines and VoIP have any idea what your hold music even is. On mobile it's just undifferentiated screeching.

> On mobile it's just undifferentiated screeching.

Maybe the caller was a Norwegian death metal fan? ;-)

"What's that awesome track you were just playing? I tried Shazaming it, but it just came back with Beyonce. I can't find a death metal band covering any of her songs?"

The best 'hold music' I've experienced is from a small aircraft manufacturer; they play recordings from the tower at Oshkosh during Airventure, so much fun!

Unfortunately if you’re Dell and you try to do this you actually have to pay for every song they play. But first you have to know what song they are playing.

The obnoxious part is where companies like Apple who actually choose and license nice music play it in such a way it sounds absolutely horrible on the phone. What a waste!

The frequency passband on old-school analogue POTS isn't wide enough to play music with acceptable fidelity. The upper frequency limit for POTS services is 3.4KHz, which is far below the ~15Khz needed for half-passable music fidelity.

Modern digital is worse because it combines the frequency passband of analogue with combinations of codecs and bit rates that can't support the audio complexity of music.

You would think POTS music would be unbearable, but it wasn't. It was about as tolerable as AM radio.

In the age of Compact Disc, people are spoiled for audio quality ;)

It's a challenge to make music sound nice on the phone. From Apple, I'd expect they'd try to get their hold music setup for 'HD Voice' which would help, but just stuffing it into POTS is going to be pretty icky.

Surely if Apple though it was worthwhile, it'd be pretty simple for them to remotely fire up iTunes and play your iTunes Favourites playlist at full iTunes streaming quality through the phone app while on-hold with them. (And for the lulz, make it play every song you've ever skipped when you're on hold with Google. Which'd be one of those wait-10-years-before-anyone-finds-it type of easter eggs, 'cause that's approximately the time between real people finding an actual working support number for Google... ;-) )

The worst hold music I've heard was an advertising jingle for the company I was calling. Listening to that over and over will drive you insane and make you hate the company for putting you through it.

I don't mind hold music, but it's the constant fake interruption with advertisements that interrupt the hold music every 30 seconds that destroys your ability to multitask while waiting. Looking at you AT&T.

I might buy a pixel 5 just for this feature...I waited 30 min on the line for just to make a doctor appointment recently. Wait time are fucking absurd for some of these services since Covid, especially with banks and medical offices.

I’m waiting for the day my doctor’s office puts a calendar link on their website and lets you directly request an appointment. So far they bought one of those EMRs with a website that allows you to send a “secure message.”

> So far they bought one of those EMRs with a website that allows you to send a “secure message.”

HIPAA fines are fearsome. Medical IT is heavily weighted towards creating parallel systems that don't touch the rest of the world.

They should get on Zocdoc (shameless plug - I work there). Not having to wait on hold with a doctor's office is one of our main selling points for patients.

Phones for booking are absurd. Phones for food ordering are absurd.

Why? Making a phone call removes middlemen from the process.

When I order food over the phone, the only people who need to take a cut of the transaction are the restaurant and maybe the credit card company if I don't pay cash. I can also be confident that my tips are going to the person whose hand I place them in.

When I order online, there are umpteen different companies taking my data and the restaurant's money, and they often obscure where fees and tips go. To me, it seems absurd to involve so many parties in such a simple transaction.

The experience is also usually fungible. Talking to someone doesn't take longer or introduce more error in my experience, so I usually prefer it because there are less externalities and fewer complexities.

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

Literally the purpose of a phone call is to reach a middleman.

Using computer agents avoids the middleman.

If the restaurant runs a website, there's no "umpteen different companies taking my data".

Building your own online service is more expensive than just using the phone line that they already have.

...or you can contact the restaurant via text message, WhatsApp, etc, and have all the benefits of both phone and online ordering.

You also don't have to sign up anywhere or give your email address for a phone order.

You have to give your phone number, which is worse.

The main difference is that when you place an order with Door Dash or Uber Eats, you get put on a marketing spam email list by default.

Tell that to my plumber. The plumbers with nice automated systems still use people to pressure you. And you're paying for those systems and people in your bill. One of them quoted me $2500 for 2 faucets. The local dude did it next day for $350. Those ads at football games and fancy systems and trucks don't provide revenue or better service. So I'll deal with the crazy dude who's likely cutting a wall or soldering something talking to me on bluetooth.

Also with a lot of these people, they can't really schedule, stuff is just a queue. This dude is definitely a queue.

I remember asking one of the $350-type contractors if they've heard of the Travelling Salesman Problem... it seemed like they could use the knowledge. Dunno if my explanation changed anything, but its their mileage not mine (except indirectly it is). Le sigh.

What's the traveling salesman problem for a plumber?

You have a series of calls to respond to.

Doing FIFO may be “fair”, but resulted in more time spent travelling rather than responding to calls.

Or you can service a small region and spend little time driving. That's what this guy does. Stays in a 10 mile radius. His phone is constantly blowing up.

Alternate history fiction idea: Telegraphy was expanded to allow individuals to make asynchronous communications without an intermediary. Replacing telephones, for the most part, are machines like an ASR-33 teletype with a receiver for voice calls, on which people can do things like instantly place orders or book travel -- in a pre-WWII setting.

For booking complex, non-fungible services (like Doctor's appointments, plumbers, etc) phones are great for high-bandwidth communication for follow-up questions, triage, etc. Phones also allow a certain element of salesmanship which doesn't come through on a form, which a big reason why service providers like them.

No alternative exists that doesn't have huge downsides. The main contenders are privacy invasive proprietary apps which take huge cuts of the sale.

And then you have restaurants own websites which if they exist, are super clunky and require typing payment details rather than paying on pickup.

As soon as you want a special order, phone for food is the quickest way to order. In some of my local resturants I skip the service fee the website adds, too, that way.

The problem is that there has to be a better alternative, and it has to be better for the businesses implementing it, and the switching cost must be low.

There is a better alternative already: WhatsApp is probably the #1 way of ordering food in lot of 3rd world countries and also in part of Europe.

Off-topic, but related: I've always wondered why someone hasn't offered a muzak-type service that is built around algorithmic generation of music.

In my estimation, the state of algorithmic music doesn't currently allow for the compelling listening that we're used to with most "human" music, but I can see it being good enough for situations like call-holding or similarly ambient situations like restrooms or lobbies. It could be somewhat bland, but it's content shifts subtly enough to avoid irritation over the course of ten minutes.

In my head, I hear something like the kind of minimal techno that Ricardo Villalobos is known for. Long, evolving, beatscapes that slowly transform over the course of an hour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZWdWzMdndc

I was once put on hold at a music equipment rental shop and heard a decidedly "non-muzak" drum and synthesizer loop. When the rep took me off hold they explained that I was hearing a live feed of some electronic instruments that they had running in the back room. He then put me back on hold in order to demonstrate him playing around with the synthesizers that were on loop. That really made my day.

There are a couple of companies doing that.

With hands-free phones I never felt like I was wasting my time on hold. However, this might save my sanity by not making me listen to the awful music over and over.

Probably more than half the companies I've been on hold with interrupt their hold music with periodic recorded voice announcements (e.g. music music "Try our new flavor of Ovaltine!" music music). Event with a hands-free phone, this is probably the worst possible hold experience.

hold music at 14.5kbps quality "we're experiencing higher than normal call volumes, please stay on the line" hold music at 14.5kbps quality (repeat)

The ones I hate are the ones that ask "have you tried doing it online?" to get you out of the queue. I wouldn't be calling you if you allowed me to do what I'm trying to do online.

The problem is that unfortunately there are a lot of monkeys out there that actually do call for things that can be done online, either because of laziness or incompetence such as not being able to manage passwords to login online (I used to work in a customer-facing role selling phones and the amount of idiots buying high-end smartphones while not even being able to login to their email was mind-blowing - I did more password resets for Hotmail/Gmail/Apple than my main duty which was to deal with carrier- and network-related issues).

Of course the real solution is to make phone support paid (with a refund if the problem ends up being the company's fault or something that can't be done self-service) as to discourage this behavior.

You forgot to preface with the new excuse: “Due to COVID-19...”

Also the permanent IVR message "please listen carefully as our options have recently changed".

And "your call may be recorded for training and quality purposes" and "your call is important to us". The former is s legal requirement but I really wonder why they often include the latter. I'd my call is that important, just answer me instead of telling me so!!!

> "your call may be recorded for training and quality purposes"

I reply "Thank you" when it says this. I mean, it's permission right? Saves me remembering to ask the person who picks up if it's OK for me to record our conversation.

It depends on the country... Legally this is a quagmire here in Europe. Every country has its own rules.

Generally most companies I know have an opt-out option in the IVR now (IVR = voice menu). Or opt-in in the countries where that is required.

I recall an even more evil example (I forget the company) where they'd interrupt the music, have this sound effect that sounded like someone was picking up a phone or breathing into it, and then instead of a human it was one of those "Did you know, you can upgrade your service to the MoarPlan today!" irritants. The effect gave your brain just enough hope to yank your attention from whatever useful thing you were trying to do while on hold.

that is evil. geez. LMK if you remember the company, I'll get them tested. (I work on Hold For Me)

Have no idea as it was years ago. Probably one of the usual suspects: a cable or phone monopoly.

I wonder if this service can handle these messages. I have had holds where an automated voice would tell me the estimated wait time every few minutes. Can google's system differentiate between a customer service rep and a series of unique procedurally generated messages?

Yes, from the article:

> * Every business’s hold loop is different and simple algorithms can't accurately detect when a customer support representative comes onto the call. Hold for Me is powered by Google’s Duplex technology, which not only recognizes hold music but also understands the difference between a recorded message (like “Hello, thank you for waiting”) and a representative on the line.

There’s always an irritating pause which sounds like someone has picked up as well, so every 90 seconds your hopes are dashed.

>Event with a hands-free phone, this is probably the worst possible hold experience.

And yet they also want you to believe "Your call is very important to us!"

My favorite was the DMV every 2-3 minutes making a call transfer sound with some ringing to get your hopes way up. Then after 5-6 loops of this hanging up on you with “we do not have any agents available.”

I haven’t seen this in ages, but I remember Microsoft had a radio like DJ on their on hold queue.

Almost always the message was 'maybe you should try something besides calling us.'

My hypothesis is that the horrendous music is on purpose, as a way to get you to hang up and stop bothering them. Sure, the 2-hour wait times could just be because they're too cheap to hire enough staff but what reason could there be to make the music so bad?

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