For Better Service, "Marque el Número Dos"

By David Seminara on March 6, 2012

One of the seldom considered aspects of mass immigration is the impact it has on the toll-free customer service lines we use. These days, one can conduct any business imaginable over the phone in Spanish, and sometimes other languages. Most companies now only offer a choice of two languages, but with our population projected to reach 20 percent foreign-born by 2050, we may soon reach a point where services are offered in Chinese, Russian, Arabic, and other languages.

In many cases, like at hospitals, courts, and the like, customers already can conduct business in these and other languages. I've often wondered if there was an advantage to "pressing 2 for Spanish" and this weekend I found out that, at least sometimes, there is.

I try to avoid these customer service numbers like the plague, as I prefer to conduct business online whenever I can. But on Saturday, I found myself in the unenviable position of having to call Washington Gas here in the D.C. metro area. After waiting on hold for an hour and 40 minutes (and I have a phone that shows the duration of each call, so this is not an exaggeration), my wife suggested I try calling back on my mobile and pressing 2 for Spanish.

I was skeptical that this would work, but I tried it, while keeping the English-language line going on my home phone on speakerphone. I pressed 2 for Spanish and then pressed 5 to discuss "another matter", the same option I selected on the English line. And wouldn't you know it, in three minutes flat a customer service rep was ready to greet me. In Spanish.

Luckily he spoke English as well. He confirmed that the English line was open and functional, but said that sometimes they have a longer wait. Unfortunately, he couldn't resolve the matter I called about and when I asked to speak to a supervisor, he disconnected me.

Meanwhile, I kept the English language line open on speaker, and must have heard the same recorded message another 50 times, at least, as the counter on my phone ticked past the two-hour mark, still with no one there to answer. My wife questioned my sanity for staying on the line, but I wanted to see how long it would take for someone to actually answer the English speakers' line. Part of me wondered if anyone would ever answer my call.

As my call to the English-language line reached the two-hour, 12 minute mark, I decided to call on the Spanish speakers' line on my mobile one more time, to make sure the first call wasn't a fluke. This time, I got through in just under two minutes. I was connected to a different Spanish-speaking representative, who also spoke English fluently. I told him the situation, and let him hear that I was still on hold on the English line and this time was transferred to a supervisor named Ren.

"Sir, they are two separate lines, the English speaker's line and the Spanish speaker's line, and sometimes there is a longer wait for English speakers because there are more of them", he explained.

"So if you have English speakers waiting more than two hours, why not pull some representatives off of the Spanish speakers' line?" I asked.

"Some of those representatives don't speak English", he countered.

"Well, I just spoke to two who did, why not let them field calls from English speakers who have been waiting on hold for hours?" I asked.

Ren said that I should write to management with this suggestion, but insisted that the English line was working — it was just busy, he said. I placed the original call and pressed 1 for English at 12:40 p.m. and finally, at 4.38, after being on hold for just over three hours and 58 minutes, a recorded message said, "our office is now closed please try again later" and I was disconnected, just seconds shy of the four-hour mark.

My experience is not a scientific experiment and it's possible that this kind of thing isn’t common. Perhaps there are some customer service lines where it’s more advantageous to press 1 for English. Disparities will happen. But two minutes vs. four hours and a disconnect? I asked Washington Gas to explain how this could be possible, but they refused to divulge their staffing patterns or provide a coherent explanation.

Instead, they sent me a statement which said that they were "committed to providing all customers with the same level of high quality service, no matter the language." It also said that they were "reviewing our records in order to identify and address the cause of your extended time on hold."

I also made a complaint to the Virginia State Corporation Commission, which has oversight over Washington Gas, and the representative there was helpful. Still I'm not holding my breath that I'll ever receive a coherent explanation for this.

The lesson learned? For me, it’s probably time to learn Spanish, or at least remember to "marque el número dos".