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Voice Mail Hell

 I’m a customer service advocate. Superior customer service enhances each  customer’s experience and can make him or her loyal for the long term.

I’m also a cost-conscious businessperson who

understands the expense associated with excellent customer service.

So I suppose those toll-free customer dis-service telephone numbers provided by financial services, technology firms, utility companies and other marketers should be no surprise. They control customer service expenses while serving as a concrete wall between the customer and company.

I recently had a problem with a new hardware component I acquired. "For questions about your bill, press 1.To order new service, press 2. For technical support, press 3."

Ah ha! I need technical support, so I pressed "3."

"To receive technical support for models 440, 450 or 460, press 1. To receive technical support for models 640, 650 or 660, press 2. To receive technical support for models 840, 850 or 860, press 3. For all other technical support questions, visit"

Model number? I don’t know what model number I’ve got. It doesn’t appear on the front, back, top, bottom or either side of the unit. What’ll I do!? I’ll press "2" and take my chances. At least I’d get to talk with a warm caring human being who can tell me what number I should have pressed.

So I pressed "2."

"All of our technical support representatives are busy helping other customers. Please remain on the line. Your call is important to us."

"Important to us!?" I feel as important as a sickly mutt in an animal shelter. (Just a metaphor. No letters from PETA supporters, please).

The recording loops, 4,5,6,7,8,9�then 10 times.

My heart starts pounding. I grow anxious. I’m so involved in this ordeal, I’m concerned I won’t remember the reason I called in the first place.

Suddenly, a "live" voice answers. "Technical support. This is Keith. May I have your model number please?"

"I don’t know my model number Keith. It’s not on the top, bottom, front, back or either side of my unit. May I describe what it looks like?"

"I can’t help you without a model number," Keith advised dryly.

"Well, what should I do?" "Can you help me identify my model number?"

Keith offers, "I’ll transfer you to our customer service center. They’ll be able to help you."

I hear a loud click, wait for a ring, another recording or a human voice�but what I hear instead is a dial tone.

Keith hung up on me! I’m back where I started. Lost. Helpless. In desperate need of assistance.

I’ll call back another day�when Keith’s in a better mood.

And what about the customer dis-service numbers we’re provided by our financial "services" companies?

"Thank you for calling American Detour. Please enter your 15 digit account number now."

Quickly, I grab for my wallet, search for my credit card, pull it out and purposefully punch each number into the telephone keypad.

There’s a long pause. Did the machine "hear’ my account number? Did I take too long to "enter" my account number?

A recorded voice came back on the line and in v.e.r.y. slow succession tells me succinctly each and every digit I’ve punched.

"If this number is correct, press 1. If this number is incorrect, press 2."

All right! It’s correct! I’ve past the first hurdle. I can’t imagine my penalty if my finger slipped.

My elation turns to tension as I’m presented with another challenge of choices:

  • "If you wish to tell us about a payment you’ve just mailed, press 1."
  • "If you wish to learn whether your recent payment has been received, press 2."
  • "If you wish to learn the balance on your account, press 3."
  • "If you wish to redeem the rewards you’ve earned, press 4."
  • "If you wish to speak with a customer service representative, press 5."

That’s it! At last! I wanted to talk with a person! A human being! An individual with whom I can discuss my recent payment�which was for lots more then appears on my statement!

I pressed "5."

A human voice answered, "Thank you for calling customer service. This is Keith. May I have your account number please?"

"Keith," I shrieked! "Hello! This is Mark again!"

"May I have your account number please?"

I must have done something to upset Keith. First he hung up on me and now he’s as cold as stone.

"Keith, I just entered my account number into the telephone. Don’t you have it on a screen in front of you?"

"No, sir. I don’t. May I have your account number please?"

I wondered why I was required to enter my account number at the beginning of the call as I read each number aloud to Keith, digit-by-digit.

"How may I help you, sir?"

I explained my problem to Keith and he efficiently analyzed my transaction history on, what I assume was, the computer screen in front of him.

"It appears the incorrect amount was recorded. I can make the adjustment for you now, unless you’d prefer to call back."

"Call back?" I thought. "Why would I want to call back?" I didn’t pose the question. Keith might hang up.

"No, please make the adjustment now."

"OK," Keith replied. "Please hold on. This may take a few minutes. And you’ll want to write down your confirmation number."

I wondered how long I’d have to wait�and why this would take a "few minutes."

But I waited. "Been at this job for long Keith," I asked?

"Three years," he snapped. Keith was in no mood for chitchat.

So I waited in silence with just the clatter of computer keys in the background.

And I waited. And waited. And waited. And waited a bit longer.

"I’ve made the adjustment to your account," Keith told me. "This won’t affect your credit rating. Thank you for calling American Detour." Click.

"Won’t affect my credit rating?" Of course it won’t. It didn’t even occur to me. Why did he say that?

I was certain my credit rating was shot.

Plus, Keith didn’t tell me the confirmation number I waited for! What if the adjustment doesn’t appear on my next statement? What’ll I do then?

Customer service should be reassuring, comforting and simple. Instead, it’s become a television reality show on which customers are put in frustrating situations and their patience is tested.

The message we send with these tedious IVRs (Interactive Voice Recordings) is "It’s your problem." Then we compound the customer’s problem by withholding care. I’m a marketing professional. But I’m a customer too. And I think I deserve more. Don’t you?

Want to know more about how customer service fits into your marketing mix? Call me, Mark Levit, at 212.696.1200.

Mark S. Levit

Advertising agency