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The Curse of the 1-800 Number

Okay, maybe it’s not scary enough to make a great horror film. But is there anybody else around here who trembles and quakes as I do at the prospect of trying to solve a problem when the only contact a company will allow you is the Dreaded 800 Number?

I’m not against 800 numbers in general. Obviously, they can be handy for signing up for a service, checking a balance, or asking a minor question. I’d rather do all that online, if I have to do it at all. But the 800 number is a quick and easy alternative for simple stuff.

But when something goes wrong … OMG.

Right now I’m dealing with a small matter involving a Big Famous Company. Really not a big deal. But one of their phone reps misled me in a way that caused some definite strife. It also cost the BFC money and time. There are only three possibilities: the sales rep was misinformed about company policies; the sales rep lied; or the company has policies that are All Screwed Up and the rep was just following them. I sent a certified letter a few weeks back explaining the situation, attaching documentation, and asking them to look into the situation.

Got a form letter in response. You know what it said, don’t you? If you’ve ever tried to deal with a BFC, you’ve seen this letter before. It says, “We sincerely want to help you with your problem. Please call our helpful Customer Care Representatives at 1-800 …”

In other words: Go talk to the very people who caused the problem — the people who have neither the ability nor the authority to do Thing One about the situation. In other words: Get freaking lost. We don’t give a rip.

I’ll drop the matter if I don’t get an answer to my second certified letter (this one mailed to the exec who ostensibly signed the form letter). As I said, it’s not a big deal and I’m not going to bash my brains against a wall over it.

But years ago I had a super, super serious problem with another BFC. Many thousands of dollars were at stake. When it first occurred, I made two calls to their “Helpful Customer Care Representatives” — calls that didn’t make a dent in the problem but did make me realize that a) the reps didn’t know or care how to fix the situation, and b) if the dispute were to escalate, I would have no paper trail to prove that I’d been trying to solve the problem or to document anything the company rep said to me. If I kept calling, the company could just deny, deny, deny.

For the next six months I fired letters at them, explaining the situation over and over. I sent the letters certified. I sent them to managers and executives by name. I explained why I was absolutely not going to deal with their 1-800 reps again, but I assured them of my willingness, my eagerness, to work with them on the problem if only they would respond to my letters. In the end, I even took to doing things like writing portions of the letters in purple crayon (because I had read that such tactics sometimes got attention when nothing else could).

That particular BFC never once directly answered me, not even with a form letter. But about twice a month, I would receive other form letters from them saying, “We’re SO sorry you’ve NEVER contacted us about this matter. We sincerely want to help solve this problem. Please call our Helpful Customer Care Representatives at 1-800 …”

And I would hopefully take the name from the signature line of the newest form letter, write a certified letter to that person … and ’round and ’round the un-merry-go-round would go.

Ever since then … well, I’d rather meet Freddie Krueger, Jason, and Chuckie together in a dark alley than have to try to solve a problem with any BFC in the world. I truly sympathize with that poor man who let his house go into foreclosure because his bank wouldn’t deal with him human-to-human over a wrongful $25 charge. His principled stubbornness may be unusual, but his plight is not.

For the company he attempted to reason with, it was either 1-800 reps — who typically gave no help — or lawyers.

1-800 numbers were set up as a convenience for both company and customer. That’s all they should be. Whoever decided to make them the only avenue for problem solving between customers and corporations was either insane or insanely rapacious — so eager to save a buck for the company that they didn’t — and don’t — notice that the costs (in both money and goodwill) of alienating customers eventually surpass any savings the “convenience” of ill-paid, poorly-informed, and often uncaring 1-800 rep offers.

Nothing against the reps themselves. Well, most of them. They’re in an impossible position. But come the revolution, the guy who decided that customers would be allowed to deal with companies solely via 1-800 numbers should go up against the wall. Right after IRS agents, ATF entrappers, TSA gropers, and parents who bring screaming children to nice restaurants.


  1. Fred
    Fred November 24, 2010 6:01 am

    Claire, I’m wondering why you are protecting the identity of the culprit? Having dealt with BFCs a few times with results similar to yours I feel I’m providing a public service when I pass on the company name with the horror stories.

    I once worked for a BFC (IBM). When I started they were paragons of customer service and a great place to work. In the mid 90s they made an abrupt about face. Having worked in customer service, it became almost impossible for me to do my job in a way I felt was honest and forthright, without getting fired. Seems like many other BFCs have followed their example over the years.

  2. Tom
    Tom November 24, 2010 6:42 am

    The solution to your problem is to keep calling the 1-800 number until you get the one person in the call center who will be helpful. Call back at least once a day if not more.

    The only other solution is to just stop dealing with BFC which in many cases just isn’t possible.

  3. Matt
    Matt November 24, 2010 7:09 am

    I have found that when dealin with 1-800 issues that the first line person can seldom help. After telling them my problem and getting the obligatory non-answer I politely ask to speak to their supervisor/manager. When that person provides limited or non-help I ask to speak to their supervisor/manager etc. Usually takes me three layers before they shift me to the real help desk.

  4. Pat
    Pat November 24, 2010 7:29 am

    I’m having a similar problem myself with a BFC. (But you’re being nice — my f-word isn’t labeled Famous.)

    To those who have: how do you reach a person in the first place? I’ve called three times and was NEVER able to get a person to talk to, only automatic voice — push 1 for English, push 4 for support, etc.; pushing “0” only gets me cut off after three minutes on hold. I’ve been online twice to make Contact and there’s no option to cover my problem, and no screen to leave a message. And I’ve written a letter explaining everything — with no response.

    Once settled, this company will never darken my door again.

  5. Diogenes
    Diogenes November 24, 2010 9:09 am

    “Right after IRS agents, ATF entrappers, TSA gropers, and parents who bring screaming children to nice restaurants. ”

    There are days where I think the latter group are the cause of the prior ones. Those are the days that I think that particular group should be first in line. NO appeals on any of the groups though. Wall, choice of blindfolds, no cigarettes though since they don’t allow them in 99% of the restaurants any longer: hence they do without at that time.

  6. Scott
    Scott November 24, 2010 1:24 pm

    One of the reasons I’ve had the same bank for almost 30 years is I can easily talk to a real live hoomin bean. A friend of mine belongs to a credit union with a similar 800 number fubarnugen. Since 1980, I’ve tried to convince the IRS they have my middle initial wrong(they have it as two letters)-talking to machines, humans(or whatever it is they have answering phones)-makes no difference. Once every half decade or so I try again. So far, they still have it wrong…Good Luck. I suppose persistence pays. Is it convenient to go directly to an office of the problem BFC?
    I’ve had luck with illustrated/brightly colored envelopes,with the correspondence on neon paper and bright metallic inks(a minor problem with the state version of the IRS). Don’t be the least bit surprised that once the problem is “solved”, that it floats back up again,especially with taxological types,maybe years later.
    I got a parking ticket nastygram once for a car I’ve never owned! I did manage to talk to a live hoomin bean(or at least a reanimated one). It took three trips to get it straightened out…I know that’s not really very encouraging, but the few problems like that I’ve had were never settled quickly or easily.

  7. Ellendra
    Ellendra November 24, 2010 9:53 pm

    I’ve worked for a couple of 1-800 numbers, some are better than others at having an actual, living, knowledgable, helpful person answering the phone.

    There are a few phone-machines that will route you to a live person faster if you yell and cuss at them. Seriously!

  8. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty November 25, 2010 8:14 am

    This is truly one of my top ten pet peeves. I have an added dimension to the problem. Even if I can get a live person – or reasonable facsimile – on the phone, I almost never can understand what they are saying because I’m 40% nerve deaf. I can hear the SOUND, usually, just not always interpret it into words.

    The real joke is when I get a recording that has supposed voice “recognition” and they want me to recite account numbers or whatever. I’m almost NEVER able to get “it” to recognize MY words, even if I do understand what they are asking for!!! Most of them give NO option to speak to a living being… human or otherwise.

    A recent experience illustrates this well. A friend bought a new computer, but it wouldn’t boot. We tried everything, then finally called the 800 number. The usual recording and voice activation menu proceeded to waste nearly an hour of time on a pre-paid telephone… 10 cents a minute. It was the only phone he has. The automated thing would hang up on me each time after several rounds of the “menu” and no recognition of my words.

    Interestingly, each time we called back, the auto thing KNEW that we had previously called and asked if we had the same problem or a new one.

    Near the end of the hour, he tried to call instead and was able to make the machine understand the words necessary to get transfered to a person – who was obviously in Pakistan, or had recently come from there. Neither one of us could understand one word in 5 that he spoke and it became very frustrating for all of us.

    Suddenly he said – quite clearly: “Take it back to the store.”

    We thanked him and hung up. Sheech… we could have thought of that one on our own. We drove the 75 miles to the store, got a refund and drove back home.

  9. Chris
    Chris November 25, 2010 10:38 am

    Get a phone recorder. If you get through to a person, tell them you are recording the call (be sure you record this statement). Then ask them who they are – even if it’s not a full name, it can be used to identify them. This adds a level of accountability that usually makes them pay more attention to solving your problem. Good luck – but keep the tapes!

  10. Ellendra
    Ellendra November 25, 2010 9:17 pm

    I second Chris’s advice!

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