Thursday, December 7

You wait endlessly for a human voice on the other end of the phone

A ragtime song on a loop, the latest pop folk hit, or the overly saturated melody from the latest company ad. Clients of numerous companies –and administrations– of all kinds are more than used to spending long periods of time listening to these sounds with their ear to the phone or with their mobile on speakerphone ringing in the background until an operator manages to answer them. The Government has approved this Tuesday a measure that will limit this suffering.

The head of Consumer Affairs, Alberto Garzón, announced this Tuesday at the press conference after the Council of Ministers the Draft Law on Customer Service Services, which, among other things, will force companies not to extend waiting times for more than three minutes of customers to be attended by telephone in general information, claim and after-sales services.

In a series of calls between Tuesday afternoon and today morning, this newspaper has been able to verify the lax deadlines that companies give themselves to answer the phone. After a multi-step conversation with robots, some still unaccustomed to certain idioms of the human voice, the virtual machine of one of the most important energy companies in the country warns that the wait may be delayed. “All of our agents are busy right now,” he repeats at two-minute intervals. In the background a melody from an online course sounds. mindfulness.

As of the entry into force of the regulation, which now has to go through the parliamentary process to be approved, companies will have to respond to a minor infraction (censored with fines of between 150 and 10,000 euros) if they fail to comply with both this measure and others contemplated in the draft. These infringements will become serious if they affect vulnerable consumers or if, for example, they occur on a recurring basis. In this case, fines can be up to 100,000 euros.

Mobile phone companies or companies that sell phone and internet services also capture the general opprobrium of consumers. Around 19:00, it is impossible for one of these companies to answer the phone within five minutes, although in this case they warn: “The waiting time is greater than five minutes.” The wait this time is enlivened by a ragtime ditty, like the one in the movie El Colpe, which doesn’t last long for the margins of the service and sounds up to three times during the wait. In total, eight minutes until the “Good afternoon, what do you want?”. In the case of another competing company, the only thing that changes is the style: they put a gospel thread interspersed with commercials.

Garzón argued at a press conference that many citizens “get desperate when they are faced with a call or when they encounter serious difficulties in unsubscribing from a service through mechanisms that are comfortable, unlike the ease with which these services were contracted.” For the minister, these efforts represent “an enormous expenditure of energy, time and money” and “sometimes end up meaning the client’s resignation.” For this reason, the future law will seek that companies guarantee in their annual report that 95% of the calls answered are under three minutes.

The Consumption measure will affect all public and private companies in different sectors: supply and distribution of water and energy; passenger transport by air, rail, sea or waterway, bus or coach; postal services; conditional access paid audiovisual communication services; electronic and telephone communications; or financial services. In this way, public companies such as Renfe will also be included, which on Wednesday morning in a telephone call extended the wait for a query about a ticket up to eight minutes.

The law will only affect companies, although institutions do not stand out for their speed when responding. Most offer the possibility of exchanging telephone help for a complete online service, through a chain of procedures to obtain a password, but speaking in person is difficult. The State Public Employment Service (SEPE), for example, does not even keep you waiting, but if it detects that there are many calls in parallel, it hangs up the call. This morning, the delay to carry out a procedure on educational issues in the 012 of the Community of Madrid was about nine minutes, after passing the virtual assistant filter.

a human voice

Another issue included in the law, although this has already been known for a few months, is that users may be served by a person with specialized training, even though the beginning of the conversation was an exchange with an avatar with a metallic voice. In the calls made by this newspaper, the dialogues last on average between a minute and a minute and a half, although in some cases they become lethargic or hit a wall: “Excuse me, I don’t understand you well.” Another of the energy companies contacted has replaced Loquendo’s conventional voice with a more youthful and enthusiastic one, but the result is not much more effective.

In case of dissatisfaction with the attention received by these automatic means, the transfer to a superior responsible person or to a specific quality department. The text thus prohibits any company from using a robotic medium as an exclusive means of customer service. The aim is for services to be inclusive and pay special attention to vulnerable people.

The project also includes a specific section for financial services, which must ensure their customers the availability of face-to-face channels, whether permanent or intermittent, telephone or telematic, based on the principle of personalized provision. They will take into account the age of the person, where they live or their level of digital skills to avoid situations of financial exclusion. The whole of the law, if it gets the green light in Congress and the Senate, will try to ensure that the wait does not last more than one song, users do not despair and if, for any reason they do, they can express it to a person and not to a machine, if you wish.