Shucking Oysters: Your Call Is Not Really That Important


“All our agents are currently busy with other calls. Please stay on the line.” “All our agents are still busy, please continue to hold for the next available agent.” “We are currently experiencing a high volume of calls….”

I have spent the last week trying to speak to a Canada Revenue agent, and I am now at that borderline level of customer service rage. All because I filed my income tax differently from previous years, I can’t register on line and have to speak to a CRA representative. I dutifully call Revenue Canada and I am greeted in French to press deux (2) to have a French-speaking agent. That’s it. C’est ça. So, logically I assume that by pressing 1, I will have the English-speaking option. And down the rabbit hole we go. An automated voice tells me to press 1 for something, press 2 for another, 3, 4, 5 options. After pressing one of the five options, I am given three more options. I have to play them all, because none quite explain my situation. Not once do any of the options let me speak to an agent. So, after going through the option tree, I get directed back to the main menu and have a brilliant moment. Don’t press 1 or deux, wait and see. Sure enough, I can speak to a real agent through this loop, but of course, the obligatory “we are experiencing a high volume of calls please call back” is played. So, I try again another day, this time I get in the queue and the wait time is more than three hours. The next day, the queue is full, so I’m told to call back or visit the website. I even tried the number for Yukon, Northwest Territories, thinking that maybe I could interact with a real person. Not. At this point, I am no longer calm nor rational. If I owed them money, it would be a different story — they would be calling me every day. It’s not just the government, every corporation seems to grow more inhuman and unhelpful with every phone call we make. 

Whether it’s the relentless hold times, the outsourced agents who can’t speak English, or the multitude of buttons to press and automated voices to listen to before reaching a real live human being — who hasn’t felt exasperated at the abuse, neglect, and wasted time we experience when all we want is help, and maybe a little human tenderness? As someone cautioned, with AI there will be “very little room for the mellowing intervention of a human supervisor.” 

Getting caught in a tech support loop, Kate Murphy wrote, “is a peculiar kind of aggravation that mental health experts say can provoke rage in even the most mild-mannered person.” When things don’t make sense and feel out of control, humans instinctively feel threatened. Though you would like to think you can employ reason in this situation, Murphy writes, you’re really just “a mass of neural impulses and primal reactions.” Indeed. 

Once on hold, we all know what will come next: “Your call is very important to us.” Of course, after being on hold for a 10 minutes and having heard that message three or four times, you can’t help but think that your call is obviously not important at all. North Americans spend, on average, 13 hours per year waiting in a calling queue. According to a study in the journal Cost Management, a third of complaining customers must make more than two calls to resolve their complaint. And who knows how many who simply give up out of exasperation after the first call. 


In the Harvard Business Review, research suggests that some companies actually find it profitable to create hassles for complaining customers. How many products have you tried to return or get fixed to no avail? Since 2015, the study examined the incentive structures within customer service departments at over a dozen companies in finance, technology, and travel to understand why customers perpetually experience hassles. For one, all these companies screen complaining callers using a “hierarchical organizational structure.” Companies deliberately employ this inefficient, multi-step process hoping that you will give up so they can avoid giving you a replacement or refund. Not surprisingly, by forcing customers to jump through a marathon of hoops, the organizations win. They profit from our frustrations. They know that if they ignore us long enough, we will give up and go away. 

Even finding the ‘Contact Us’ page on most websites takes five to 10 clicks before you even get close. Every business has reduced its capacity for email contact. Even if a company emails you, it will come from an address that doesn’t accept replies. Of course, emailing complaints would be more convenient and efficient for the customer, but less so for the business that has to read, reply and, dear god, fix the problem.

Plan G. Canada Revenue opens at 6:30 am weekdays and I’m going to put my phone on redial at 5:45 am every morning until I get through. In the meantime, please hold for the next available instalment.


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