The New Language of Customer Service

Frustration with customer service is at an all time high, according to recent national surveys.

To determine if media exposes and lawsuits brought by state Attorneys General have redressed mounting buyer complaints, our law firm recorded a customer service conversation with Time-Warner Inc., a corporation notorious for knocking about consumers. (It was recorded lawfully, in anticipation of litigation.)

The conversation began with promise, as the company apparently has replaced fallible humans with infallible machines:


America Online Computer with “Voice recognition” Software (AOL): Thanks for calling AOL. To ensure quality service, your call may be monitored or recorded. Today there’s even more choice with the new AOL. Introducing AOL Open Ride, our newest software…it will revolutionize the way you use the Internet. You’ve got to see it to believe it… [Note to reader: “Open Ride” is what crashed my computer to begin with; hence, the call.] Are you currently paying to use the AOL service? Please say yes or press one. No or press two.

Customer: Yes.

AOL : Great, let’s look up your account. Please enter or say your home telephone number, area code first.

Customer: [Number recited.]

AOL : Sorry. I didn’t understand. Please enter or say your home telephone number.

Customer: [Number entered.]

AOL : Let me make sure we’ve got the right account. Your screen name is spelled C-A-R-L-M-A-Y-E-R. Is that right?

Customer: That’s right.

AOL : Sorry, I can’t tell whether you said “yes” or “no”.

Customer: Yes.

AOL : Sorry, I didn’t hear you. Please say “yes” or “no”.

Customer: Yes.

AOL : I’ve pulled up your account information. First, please choose one of the following AOL Departments. You can say: “order high speed”, “tech support”, “billing”, “passwords” or “cancellation.”

Customer: Tech support.

AOL : All right. I can help you with your password. But first, AOL security requires some verification. You’ve got an account security question here. Let us try that. What school did you go to?

Customer: Uh, Princeton, but I need tech support.

AOL : Hmm, that doesn’t seem to match what I’ve got on file. Let’s try that again. Please speak your answer or say, “I don’t know it”. What school did you go to?

Customer: Princeton University.

AOL : I think you said you wanted to start over and go back to the main menu. Is that correct?

Customer: Uh no. I want tech support.

AOL : Sorry, I can’t tell whether you said “yes” or “no”.

Customer: Yes.

AOL : You can say: “order high speed”, “tech support”, “billing”, “passwords”, or “cancellation.”

Customer: Tech support.

AOL : Sorry, I didn’t understand. Please choose one of the following AOL departments: “order high speed”, “tech support”, “billing”, “passwords” –

Customer: Tech support.

AOL : Sorry I still didn’t understand.

Customer: You’ve got to be kidding me. Tech support.

AOL : You’re calling for technical support, right?

Customer: Right.

AOL : Sorry, I can’t tell whether you said “yes” or “no”.

Customer: Yes.

AOL : Now in a few words please tell me what tech support problem you’re calling about. For example, you could say something like, “I’m having trouble with email attachments”.

Customer: Having problems with the software. It crashes.

AOL : Sorry, I still didn’t understand. In a few words, please tell me why you’re calling today. For example, “I can’t send email”. Okay, go ahead.

Customer: I can’t send email.

AOL : I think you said you wanted to start over and go back to the main menu. Is that correct?

Customer: No. I said I can’t send email.

AOL : Sorry, I can’t tell whether you said “yes” or “no”.

Customer: I can’t send email.

AOL : Please say one of the following words: “connection problems”, “can’t sign on”, “web browser problems”, “installation”, “email”.

Customer: Web browser problems.

AOL : When you’re ready to continue just say, “Let’s go”. If you want to call back say, “Goodbye” or just hang up.

Customer: I’d like to speak to a customer service representative.

AOL : When you’re ready say, “Let’s go” or press 1 or if you want to call us back just say, “Goodbye”.

Customer: No, I’d like to speak to a customer service representative.

[Two Beeps]

AOL : Current wait time to speak with a customer service consultant may be up to two and a half minutes. May I continue where we left off? Yes or no?

Customer: No. I want to speak to a consultant.

AOL : Okay, thank you. Our tech support staff should be able to help you with this situation. Please hold.

[Two Beeps]

[Music playing]

[Phone rings twenty-two times.]

AOL : We are unable to answer your call at this time. Please try your call again later. Thank you.

[Dial tone]

[Beep after machine hangs up]

Eureka! Time-Warner Inc., the world’s largest media conglomerate, has created a perfectly closed loop. No need for humans in this operation.

No longer do customers have to worry about language barriers generated by service personnel in foreign lands.

Time-Warner Inc. stock is surging along with the market. This economy is great unless you belong to the majority of Americans who do not own individual stocks. Then, you are merely a lowly consumer. And as long as companies can keep padding the bottom line by skimping on customer service, who cares about consumers?

Carl J. Mayer runs the Mayer Law Group LLC; the firm represents consumers and investors. His opinion pieces have appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Asbury Park Press, Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications. He can be reached at Read other articles by Carl J., or visit Carl J.'s website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Carl's brother said on June 19th, 2007 at 1:06pm #

    Who would want to talk with Carl anyhow!? TimeWarner takes my calls.

  2. willy sierens said on June 19th, 2007 at 1:39pm #

    Recently ordered camera driver software CD-ROM from HP via the web (only possibility). No download possible, got to be physical CD-ROM.
    A “handler” for HP in Holland (I live in Belgium) sent me an advance payment request, which I duly fulfilled (€15). The CD-ROM arrived, from an address in Hungaria (return address barred however). It was shattered!
    Sent it back to said handler with replacement request. No contact e-mail or phone-fax number available.
    Still waiting…

  3. Binh said on June 19th, 2007 at 6:00pm #

    Check out this blog:

    They post tips, tricks, phone numbers of CEOs, and other goodies to benefit us as consumers. Wouldn’t it be great to just call or email the CEO of AOL-Time Warner directly with your complaint? I’ve found this website to be invaluable before buying any kind of merchandise or dealing with certain companies…

  4. Marah Marie said on June 19th, 2007 at 8:28pm #

    Check out this blog, too:

    It posts tips, tricks, and phone numbers to benefit consumers who want to cancel AOL, uninstall their software, and blow them off for life.

    One of my readers posted a neat trick a few months ago to avoid having to go through what you did. Anonymous writes on

    “I was trying to cancel my account and that stupid voice bastard kept not understanding me and asking me to repeat myself. After 15 minutes I decided to just start over. On the first prompt it asked me about joining AOL, I said yes…got me to a person in less than 30 seconds. Was able to get them to transfer me to the cancellation department right after.”

    Hilarious! The simplicity of it practically hit me over the head…

    The transcript of your phone call was very funny, too. I usually call AOL every few months on behalf of readers having really dire problems, but the voice-recognition software is doing a lot better with my voice than it used to, “not understanding me” only 3-5 times per call (that’s a big improvement over the software they had in 2005, which could not understand me at all).

    The problem I have is when I call to talk to Billing, I can’t get Billing, or anyone, for that matter. The person who wrote the comment solved that problem for me and I hope, many others, as well.

    What was the outcome of your situation with AOL? Was the tech issue resolved?

  5. Gary Corseri said on June 22nd, 2007 at 1:16pm #

    This replicates far too many of the experiences I’ve had trying to get “Customer Service.”

    Mayer is right: a couple of years ago, it was all about dealing with some kind person in Mumbai who, despite the kindness and patience, rarely had the authority or know-how to cut through the technical or bureaucratic gibberish and get to the point. Now, one is delivered to corporate robot-hell.

    No wonder America slides on productivity scales and rises on frustration levels. No wonder 75% say we’re headed in the wrong direction.

    Thanks for minding the store, Carl.

  6. rob said on April 16th, 2008 at 9:53am #

    I am a stroke survivor and have trouble speaking. AOL voice recognition system has fits when I contact AOL. Why don’t they get some AMEICAN humans not those stupid foreign curry eating American wannabes to speak to?