11811 call center in Las Rozas, Madrid.


11811 call center in Las Rozas, Madrid.
11811 call center in Las Rozas, Madrid.

The Minister of Consumption, Alberto Garzón, wants companies to attend to telephone claims in less than three minutes. And that companies do not resort exclusively to machines. In other words, after crossing the labyrinth of robotic voices, the user can find a human being. How is the thing now? Depends. This reporter has made a few calls with very mixed results.

In the summer of 2021, the person who signs it lost several years (it was three days, but without a doubt they substantially reduced my life expectancy) trying to solve an internet problem with Movistar. Hours and hours on the phone. Finally, the matter was resolved by going in person to a company store. Last Friday, June 3, Movistar’s internal mechanisms offered a surprising result: in less than a minute, a human, female voice responded with great kindness to the call. The (real) problem with a disproportionate bill from months ago was unsolvable because the claimant did not have the necessary data, but at least there was no waiting.

Neither was there with Ryanair. A robot replied that the call had to be made during business hours (starting at seven in the morning) and hung up. It was 10:04 a.m.

In Vueling they were less expeditious. It was about solving a (non-existent) problem with a ticket. The robotic voice launched questions and the claimant marked the corresponding figure. When the goal, to connect with a real person, seemed within reach, the robot decided that the most appropriate thing was for the client to turn to the web. And hung up.

Air Europa’s was a classic experience. The customer calls with a (real) issue related to loyalty card points. It has already been tried through the web, without success. It’s 10:44 in the morning. “Right now all of our operators are busy, please stay tuned,” says the robot. A version of the song plays on the phone wonderful life, a Black classic, whose lyrics speak of loneliness. This version ends and another begins, California dreaming, another vintage hit from The Mamas & The Papas, because “right now all of our operators, et cetera”. Two other versions follow. During this time, the client has been thoroughly informed that “Air Europa and Bizum fly together”. At 10:56 in the morning, on the seventh “Air Europa and Bizum”, the client gives up and hangs up.

He knows in depth all the sides of the coin.

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Two American professors, Anthony Dukes (Marshall School of Business, California) and Yi Zhu (Carlson School of Management, Minnesota), spent three years studying how customer service works. In 2019 they published a report that demonstrates what we all more or less assumed: the labyrinth of robotic voices works like a filter. Only the most patient, or those in a really dramatic situation, or a lucky few, are able to get through the process and access a human operator. With the number of claimants already drastically reduced, they can talk to a person who is usually in another country and whose ability to solve the problem tends to zero. It is the last filter. Whoever is lucky is transferred by this very remote operator to another, local operator, which finally opens the doors of Shangri La: the technical service. In this way, companies can afford few operators and not spend too much money on customer support.

The consumer organization OCU has been calling for a “fair and urgent” customer service law for years. Energy companies, banks, telephone operators and airlines monopolize the majority of telephone complaints. In most cases, they have outsourced user service to other companies, with cumbersome and exasperating protocols.

An operator of a large Spanish service company agrees to speak with the user, who identifies himself as a journalist, under the condition of absolute anonymity. “I’m risking my job,” she says, with an Andalusian accent. Her workday is six hours a day and she earns just under 800 euros per month. She comments that users are usually furious when they get to her. “They have a problem, they’ve been waiting on the phone for a while… Some people insult you right away, as if it were their fault. It takes patience and keep correcting. In other words, they call you a swindler and you have to answer: yes, sir, or madam, I understand, tell me. It is a painful job, at the end of the shift you are nervous”. Are more operators needed? “Of course more are needed! I hope that if the law comes out they put more colleagues, the company has plenty of money”. Some of the workers in these service companies are under great pressure. They ask customers to rate their service, when they often know they can’t offer a solution.

Human voices are a balm after the labyrinth of robotic voices, exasperating little music and commercials. In general, they are effective. And sometimes they go beyond the call of duty. In October 2021, after a long ordeal of calls bouncing from one robot to another, this reporter obtained the personal telephone number of an operator: “If the service to which I transferred you does not solve the problem, call me and we will try it another way” . The operator worked for Naturgy. Since then, the staggering gas bills don’t hurt me as much as others.

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