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Why Canadians are still stuck on hold, despite rise of automated customer service

Industry experts say the increasingly common and automated customer service options — like chat bots and support websites — are designed to make getting help more efficient. But these new tools, though they are improving, aren’t eliminating phone queues — for a variety of reasons.

Industry experts say online chat bots are only solving the simplest problems

A woman presses on the screen of a smartphone. She is standing on the street.

Trent Ryland recently spent hours on the phone with WestJet, trying to sort out a problem with a family member's flight between Alberta and Newfoundland.

Though his problem was eventually solved, he says the experience, which involved multiple customer service agents and calls, was frustrating — and was not unique to that airline. He says he's also struggled to reach telecommunications companies.

"They try to put you off on a bot first, then you're pressing different numbers to try to get through to an actual person to talk to," he said.

Industry experts say the increasingly common and automated customer service options — like chat bots and support websites — are designed to make getting help more efficient. But these new tools, though they are improving, aren't eliminating phone queues — for a variety of reasons.

National statistics are scarce, but being on hold continues to frustrate many Canadians, whether they're waiting to reach 911 or an insurance provider.

"Being on hold for 14 hours is ridiculous," said Magda Grzeszczuk, an Edmonton resident who struggled to reach WestJet in May.

Automation and outsourcing

A recent report from the market research company IBISWorld found the telemarketing and call centre industry in Canada has shifted toward interactive voice response technology (IVR) to cut wage costs. IVR is an automated system that responds to users' voice or keypad prompts.

At the same time, large companies have reduced their domestic operations to outsource jobs to lower-wage countries.

"It's all about cost savings," said Jeff Gallino, the CTO and founder of the call analytics firm CallMiner.

He says the wait times callers are told to expect are often deliberately set high so companies can delight callers when agents pick up sooner — while also encouraging them to go online instead.

"Almost all 'hold' music now is just an entreaty to try the digital channel," he said.

The IBISWorld report said, as technology continues to improve, call centres could be forced to evolve into an internet-based format, "paving the way for customer contact industries writ large, while being a harbinger of this industry's further decline."

Gallino says IVR became ubiquitous in the industry five or six years ago but artificial intelligence, which can generate new responses to customers based on their prompts, came on the scene last year.

Phone calls still make up the majority of customer inquiries, he said, but the digital side "is growing much, much faster."

'People want to speak with someone'

Milena Santoro, a business instructor at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton, says automated tools can be helpful for simple problems or frequently asked questions but only go so far.

"People want to speak with someone. They want an answer. They want to be heard," she said.

When consumers call a company or organization, they might reach an in-house customer service agent or a third-party company that answers calls on their behalf. According to IBISWorld, the American company Concentrix is a major player in the industry, with a market share of about 25 per cent and 13 locations in Canada. Another U.S. company, TTEC Holdings, runs four Canadian customer centres, which serve domestic and international clients.

Workers' changing jobs

Sean O'Brady, an assistant professor at McMaster University's Degroote School of Business in Hamilton, has studied this industry through interviews and surveys with mostly unionized telecommunications call centre workers and managers.

He says the rise of automated tools is frustrating call centre workers as well because they are now dealing with more irate customers whose complex problems can't be solved easily online.

More outsourcing complicates matters further, he says, if agents abroad make mistakes and Canadian workers have to fix them. Many companies also require agents to stick to scripts, which standardizes the customer experience but might not result in the quickest solution, he said.

"Customers might think, well, my agent's stupid — they keep proposing all of these solutions that I know right away won't be the solutions because they don't make a lot of sense — but they have to follow the protocols," he said.

Though he and his colleagues don't have workforce statistics from companies, he says workers are expressing fear for their jobs as they see call centres shrink, largely through attrition.

Linda Osip, the executive director of the Canadian Call Management Association, says some of the association's members used to be worried about artificial intelligence replacing their jobs, but have come to see it as a helpful tool.

She says long wait times are not common for the small- and medium-sized businesses she represents — companies hired to answer phone lines for 911, medical offices and trades businesses.

Though the number of call centres in Canada has shrunk over time, she says that's because of acquisitions, not reduced demand for agents.

Osip says she couldn't speak on behalf of larger companies or organizations that have internal customer service agents.

CRA call times up

According to the Canada Revenue Agency, total call volumes surged during the first year of the pandemic and then settled down.

But over the last few years, the average call time has increased from about eight minutes before the pandemic to more than 16 minutes in the past fiscal year. CRA spokesperson Nina Ioussoupova says that's due to many factors, including the complexity of callers' problems and extra diligence to authenticate callers' identities.

In addition to hiring more temporary staff, she said the government has been expanding its online offerings, including a chat bot pilot.

Gallino says, based on his customer base of companies largely in North America, chat bots and other digital tools are solving just a small percentage of customer problems right now, but that will likely change.

In the meantime, he predicts customers will keep waiting on the phone for longer than they'd like.

Those who feel fed up should say so, he says.

"Every company gives you an offer for a survey and nobody takes them," he said.

Because the percentage of people who answer the surveys is so low, he says, companies pay a lot of attention to the few responses they do receive.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Madeleine Cummings is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She covers local news for CBC Edmonton's web, radio and TV platforms. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca.

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