If you have a question for America Online, prepare to give your index finger a workout. You'll press 0 no fewer than 18 times before you...

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If you have a question for America Online, prepare to give your index finger a workout.

You’ll press 0 no fewer than 18 times before you reach a human being — and that’s if you don’t comply with AOL’s commands to enter your account number, screen name, phone number or ZIP code into its automated system.

By the time you reach a person, you may forget why you called.

AOL’s dim-witted automated phone system was among the worst we encountered in dialing dozens of companies and government agencies, trying to outsmart their phone systems and get to a human.

A year ago, The Seattle Times compiled a list of shortcuts for thwarting the phone systems at 60 local and national companies and government agencies.

Again this year, we’ve spent nearly 2 1/2 soul-sucking hours on hold so you don’t have to, creating an updated list of tricks for reaching live help.

How to reach a human fast

Try the Spanish menu option. Sometimes you’ll reach a bilingual agent more quickly who can help you in English, too.

Silence can be golden. Try waiting silently through the menu choices to fool the system into thinking you’ve still got a rotary-dial phone.

Try singing. Or mumbling, or even swearing, if you’re so inclined. Sometimes that confuses the automated system into transferring you. Or you could yell — some companies are using new technology to detect anger or pick up on spoken cues (a competitor’s name, for example), causing a human to step in more quickly to help.

The money shortcut. Choose a department that deals with money — sales, cancellations, collections, subscriptions. Those departments seem to answer right away and may be able to transfer you, hopefully to the front of the line.

Toll-free, longer waits. If a company has both a toll-free and a regular phone number, your wait may be shorter on the regular line.

Source: Gethuman.com; Seattle Times staff

The good news: Wait times were somewhat shorter this year. More companies are providing estimated wait times. And we found one company, Comcast, that will call you back if all their human helpers are busy.

Top marks again go to Nordstrom and Southwest Airlines, which shun automation and employ actual flesh-and-blood to pick up the phone when you call.

Yet most companies still make you hunt-and-peck your way across the number pad to reach an agent.

Ten companies actually made their phone systems worse for callers in the past year, with more complicated menus separating you from their humans

Callers trying to reach someone at Macy’s now face a confusing array of menu options, despite a pledge by the company last year to make it easier to reach a person. You’re even asked to give up your Social Security number before the system finally agrees to transfer you to a human in Macy’s credit department. A Macy’s spokeswoman said the company continues to refine its automated phone system while trying to strike a balance between providing good customer service and minimizing its costs.

King of the shortcuts

The inspiration for this consumer guide is www.gethuman.com, a popular Web site that lists shortcuts for avoiding the automated phone systems at 500 American companies and government agencies.

It was created by Boston entrepreneur/consumer advocate Paul English out of his own frustration with time-wasting automated phone systems.

Listen to our calls

It’s not easy to reach a real person at AOL. You’ll press zero 18 times before reaching a human, ignoring multiple requests for your account number, phone number, ZIP code or screen name.

You have to press 3, then say “customer service” five or six times to reach a human at Macy’s. The department store’s automated phone system even demands your Social Security number several times before finally agreeing to transfer you.

Some 10,000 visitors a day go to English’s site, where they learn that TV Guide can be reached by saying “customer service” twice, while reaching a human at Toys R Us requires pressing 1, 2, 7, 2 and then ignoring two requests for a home phone number.”These phone systems are just completely dehumanizing,” English said.

He watched his elderly father struggle to make sense of the automated phone systems he encountered. Today, English often hears from consumers who find extra frustrations because of their age, speech impediments, hearing or vision loss or dementia.

“Dignity is defined by letting people make choices,” he said. “These phone systems rob people of their dignity and force you down one path.”

But English, co-founder of the travel search company www.kayak.com, is growing impatient for change. This month, he’s launching a new project: rating all 500 companies on how well they provide customer service over the phone.

Each month, three teams of Gethuman volunteers will audit the companies’ phone systems using 10 standards voted on by thousands of visitors to English’s Web site.

The standards include giving callers the choice to dial 0 for a human and providing an estimated wait time. Companies meeting a “gold standard” would allow callers to disable hold music and ads.

Two approaches

Many companies say automated phone systems don’t deserve the bad rap they get, and that resorting to tricks to escape the phone maze may just prolong the agony.

Callers who ignore AOL’s extensive phone menus by pressing 0 repeatedly, for example, may experience a longer wait and a series of transfers to find the right person to address their issue, said AOL spokeswoman Sarah Matin.

“We think because we have so many options on the menu, there’s got to be one of those options that’s going to address everyone’s needs,” Matin said.

Southwest Airlines takes the opposite approach. “We are a very flat organization. There are not a lot of hoops to jump through, not a lot of red tape. And that trickles down to every aspect of our business,” said spokeswoman Marilee McInnis.

“When somebody calls, we want them to be able to talk to a human being.”

Some companies acknowledge they are downgrading phone support in favor of more online options.

Like eBay, which had the worst hold time of any of the companies we tried, at 12 ½ minutes.

While on hold, “the world’s online marketplace” played recorded messages strongly urging us to go to its Web site for help (as well as a recording of the 1978 Doobie Brothers hit “Minute by Minute”).

eBay emphasizes Web-based support, said spokeswoman Catherine England, including an online chat function. Phone support is limited.

“It’s kind of second nature for our community of users to be online and seek answers there,” she said.

Take that, poor service

Sometimes, you still just want to talk to a real person.

And some consumers are finding new ways of exacting revenge when they encounter poor customer service over the phone.

In June, New York blogger Vincent Ferrari spent 10 minutes trying to reach a human at AOL to cancel his account. But what happened next made him an Internet sensation.

He recorded the ensuing five-minute conversation when an agent finally picked up the phone. The agent repeatedly tried cajoling and bullying Ferrari into keeping the account. Ferrari posted the exchange on his blog (http://media.putfile.com/AOL-Cancellation) and since has done numerous media interviews about his experience.

Finding a balance

Some companies aim for a balance between money-saving automation and live phone support, which costs 10 to 20 times more than having a computer answer customer calls, according to industry experts.

Comcast launched its “virtual hold” feature 18 months ago, to applause from customers who can get a call back when an agent is available or schedule the call for a time convenient for them.

Virtual hold also has paid off for Comcast in increased efficiency in its call centers, said Cindy Gallanger, vice president of customer care, with agents staying busier during slow times by making scheduled call backs to customers.

A good automated phone system can streamline callers’ interactions with a company, said Michael Zirngibl of Angel.com, which creates automated phone systems.

Companies investing in the latest phone technology are buying breakthroughs in speech recognition and personalized phone prompts based on your calling history, he said.

But too many businesses use poorly designed or antiquated phone systems that leave callers fuming.

“There is no reason to make a caller press the 0 button 18 times to reach a person,” Zirngibl said.

That’s either an inefficient design — or a company hiding behind automation to save money.

English said he hopes his new Gethuman rankings will let consumers judge for themselves how customer-friendly leading companies really are.

“The message to consumers is … maybe you should move to the company that actually cares about its customers.”

Jolayne Houtz: 206-464-3122 or jhoutz@seattletimes.com