How to Escape Voicemail Hell? We Ask the Human Behind GetHuman.com

Like a 21st Century Riddle of the Sphinx, cracking the code to superior customer service — especially on the phone — proves nearly impossible. Finding flesh-and-blood helpers? How about an evil matrix of voicemail prompts instead?

Yet a hearty band of digital rebels (okay, four full-time employees) now posts all the ways you can dodge the automatons and get on the phone, or online, with real people. They work at GetHuman.com, a company that has humble enough roots. It was started by digital innovator Paul English (co-founder of the travel website KAYAK.com) after his dad expressed frustration over the lack of helpful humans at behemoth companies.

That was in 2005, and since then, GetHuman has built a database with more than 10,000 companies in it.  Enter Citbank, for example, and GetHuman not only tells you how to dodge the prompts, but also shares options for getting a call back or calling in via the web. It also dishes the average hold time (3 minutes as of press time). It’s also attracting millions of visitors a month, and has apps for the iPhone and Android.

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GottaBeMobile spoke with Adam Goldkamp (pictured), GetHuman’s director of operations and one of the co-owners of the company, which incorporated last year. Here he shares what makes GetHuman work, and the secrets behind its current success.

GottaBeMobile: Crowdsourcing has changed certain old-school technologies. Radar detectors, for example, now make use of apps where people can share tips on where cops hide. It sounds like there’s a similar info-sharing revolution going on with what you do.

Adam Goldkamp: It’s a terrific analogy for what we do and how we work. We get 3 million users a month coming to the site and that’s growing, but the real work is curating all the information and making sure it’s useful. We spend countless hours testing and retesting the information they give us, and if it’s good, we use it, or else we fix it. Users tell us repeatedly how grateful they are, and so it’s a delicate balance between providing them with as much information as possible.

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GBM: What do you do when big companies switch around their voice mail prompts? It stands to reason they wouldn’t want to play nice.

Goldkamp: That’s true; they’re changing their phone trees all the time, or eliminating options such as online chat. So we try to make our entries as simple as possible. When a user looks up a company, they can tell us what tips are useful, or what’s not. And it’s easy for us to track in terms of where we get the most hits.

GBM: So who are some of the biggest offenders customer-service wise?

Goldkamp: Some of the worst companies are on our Twitter feed. You can see there a long, circular conversation I had with Boost Mobile on Aug. 14. That one’s fresh in my mind, and it’s a perfect example of what we’re trying to tell companies: Negative word of mouth is a powerful thing, especially with social media, and it’s so easy for me or anyone else to broadcast something negative. We also get a lot of complaints about low-cost airlines like Spirit Air and Allegiant Air.

GBM: What’s behind these companies making it so hard to talk to humans?

Goldkamp: They look at it as just an expense. They want to cut costs everywhere they can, but they don’t realize negative word of mouth is very expensive, too. It’s cheaper for companies to keep current customers than to go out and look for new ones.

GBM: What about options other than going it on the phone? Can those work?

Goldkamp: We started as a phone book of sorts, but some people actually prefer live chat or social media. As the voice of the consumer, we’re trying to give them more options. The stats show that 70 percent of people still like to use the phone, but the metrics are changing; younger people for example like to use instant messaging or text.

GBM: And sometimes, it’s not just getting a human, but one who isn’t from some horrid call center overseas. Can you help people there?

Goldkamp: Most companies will maintain a U.S. based call centers, even if a majority of calls are fielded in the Philippines or Bangladesh. So you can get through to someone in the United States, but it could be a much longer wait. It’s frustrating, but you’re starting to see some companies bring those call centers back. And when I see someone do it, I write about it on the GetHuman blog. It’s what U.S. consumers want, and that’s encouraging.

GBM: Parting shot: What do you do when people try to call you?

Goldkamp: You can search for GetHuman in our database the same way you can search for any other company. We predominantly operate by email, and we try to get back to people very quickly. But we also realize it would be incredibly hypocritical if people didn’t have a way to contact us.

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