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Why Can’t I Talk to a Real Person?

What to consider when using free services.

There are many reasons you're more likely to be directed to online and self-help resources than talk to a real person.

Tech Support

It’s a common frustration. You have a problem, concern, or complaint, and you want to reach out to the company or service involved. Try as you might, you can’t find a phone number. If you do, you find an endless phone tree of automated assistance options — or worse, a scam.

As far as you can tell, there’s no way to access a real person.

There probably isn’t, and the reason is simple.

People are expensive. Even when they’re overseas, human labor is still costly — and often unreliable as compared to automated or self-service alternatives.

Let’s explore the alternatives.

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Why you can't talk to a real person

Offering technical support of any sort is a business decision and nothing else. Part of the cost of free services is that there may not be any direct technical support. Free tiers don’t generally “push” you into upgrading, but sometimes you just have to pay for the level of support you need or expect. Set reasonable expectations when you sign up for a free service, and consider opting to pay for better service if it’s important to you.

This isn’t about right or wrong

People tend to get frustrated when they can’t get the support they feel should exist.

From time to time, I’m one of those people. Smile

But I want to be clear: this isn’t about whether the decisions made by these companies are right or wrong. This isn’t about what you do or don’t deserve as their customer. This isn’t about how company X1 should provide real support from real people accessible by real phone numbers.

This is about understanding why things are the way they are, setting realistic expectations, and making informed decisions.

This is about becoming more self-reliant.

Free is never free

Nowhere do I hear this complaint more than about free online services. Be it free tiers of services that include paid options or services provided free in exchange for your information or the opportunity to show you advertising, free apps and services often have little to no live customer support.

I’ve said this often: having no customer support is one of the prices you pay for free services.

A “good” free service has online information available, knowledge bases you can search, and even forums where users help one another. While there’s a cost involved in those options, they’re often minimal or one-time costs, whereas human support staff costs money continuously.

If they had to pay for support staff, the service would probably not be free.

If the service wasn’t free, you probably wouldn’t use it.

The service is provided without live support to keep costs down and number of users high.

It can only be provided without live support in order to survive.

Free tiers generally don’t “push” you into anything

Many services provide what’s called a “freemium” blend of products. One tier is completely free but limited in its offering. More functionality — such as additional support — is available at paid levels of service. Often there are multiple paid levels, and each level has its own additional product or service benefits.

Users of the free version of a service often complain that they’re constantly “pushed” into purchasing the paid product in order to get even basic support.

While I can certainly name products and services that do use their free offerings as aggressive approaches to acquiring paid customers, my experience is that for the most part, it isn’t that widespread. In most cases, the offering is clear: a free version you can use without any support at all and paid versions with more features and support.

It’s not a push; it’s simply your decision. If you choose to stick with the free version, your expectations should be clear from the outset: there will be no support. A paywall is nothing more than the structure of the business’s offerings.

Businesses make these decisions based on marketing. Of course, they hope the free product or service will demonstrate the value of their offering, and people will be willing to pay for additional value. If you want to keep using the free version, you’re welcome to do so.

Without support.

These are business decisions, nothing more

It sounds horrible, but it’s really just about money.

Regardless of whether it’s a business attempting to make a profit2 or a not-for-profit organization just trying to pay the bills, customer support options are costly.

And the options for raising revenue are limited.

Display too many ads, and you lose customers. Display too few, and you don’t make enough to run the service, much less support it. Patronage and other donation-based models are marginally effective, but almost never enough for larger companies. Selling product Z in order to fund product Y generally results in product Y getting less and less attention (unless it has strategic importance to a company’s overall strategy).

And nothing changes the fact that hiring people (often termed a company’s “most important asset”) is its most costly expense.

When companies run the numbers, the cost of labor is measured against the alternatives, and self-service options like knowledge bases and peer-to-peer support forums provide a more cost-effective solution.

Do this

The state of customer support is something you need to be aware of so you can:

  • Set reasonable expectations of the services you use… perhaps even being grateful that free services are available at all.
  • Make informed decisions when choosing the services that are most important to you.

Both of these, when taken to heart, result in a much less frustrating experience.

Become more self-sufficient. If a company doesn’t provide direct customer service, look for other options. Search their knowledge bases if they have them. Join their user communities. Learn to be skeptical about the information you find, and get better at using services like Google3 to search for solutions.

Don’t get frustrated when the free or low-cost service you signed up for offers little to no customer support. It’s exactly what you should expect as part of the complex equation that allows you to use it for free. The lack of support is the additional “price” you agreed to pay.

Make different choices. If you need live support, or if the support options you find don’t meet your needs, find an alternative service more to your liking — but don’t be surprised if it’s not free. Depending on your reliance on a service, good customer support can be worth every penny.


Podcast audio


Footnotes & References

1: I’m not referring to the company formerly known as Twitter.

2: Particularly with larger companies, it’s typically not about showing a profit for the whole company, but rather that the division or smaller organizations within the company must demonstrate that the service can be viable and turn a profit on its own.

3: Itself an incredibly valuable service that is provided free and without live support.

50 comments on “Why Can’t I Talk to a Real Person?”

  1. First, I understand what you’ve said. However, my comment concerns using a very expensive product and not being able to get through to a real person. I’m referring to a recent need to speak with someone at my health insurance company. Somehow, my doctor’s office managed to disregard my explicit instructions as to where to send my renewed prescription and I got an email from the mail-order pharmacy division of the insurer stating there was a hold on my refill. (That drug isn’t covered.) I called the number provided in the email, and for the next 20+ minutes, I went from one automated recording to another. I searched the web site for other numbers that might help, but got back into the same loop over and over. If it truly was “monitored for quality control purposes,” the listeners must have gone from chuckling about my frustration to holding their headsets far away from their ears. I eventually got through to a person who was of almost no help, but after another 10+ minutes, I was successful. In this case, the free customer service was just barely a service. Sorry — thanks for letting me vent.

    • If you are a senior or disabled, on Medicare or Medicaid you should be able to contact the agency in your area that assists people like you for help,. I know that’s also off topic but that’s what these agencies are there for.

  2. No surprises in this article, but we may have a fundamentally different concept of business ethics. If you can’t afford to do it right, don’t do it. It comes down to not making promises you can’t keep. No, I don’t expect a free service to come with support, but a paid service MUST WORK. When it doesn’t work, viable service options must be available – which includes access to a person when exceptional circumstances occur. In my experience, many service providers meet this standard; it really isn’t unreasonable. Those that don’t meet this standard permanently lose my business. If nobody can meet this standard, I simply do without that type of product. Life’s too short to waste on hours-per-incident exercising “self reliance” of this sort.

  3. I much prefer the “chat” option over a phone call as it eliminates the misunderstandings that can arise speaking with people located around the globe, yet I am still interacting with a person.

    I do sometimes wonder though, if at least the start of the chat is with a machine not a real person, but overall I have been happy with the results, even though it can take a while as they disappear from the conversation for minutes at a time.

    A plus also, is that I can have a copy of the conversation sent to my email, no misunderstandings then about who wrote what.

    • I’m with you: chat works well for me. It also means that I can continue to do other things between sentences rather than hanging onto my phone. (I suspect that the person at the other end is often managing multiple chats at once, depending on the situation.)

      As for chatbots … honestly, as long as they answer my issue I don’t care where they are, or whether they’re human. Chatbot technology has improved in recent years to the point that, yes, I’m sure that many are indistinguishable from real people. And, similar to the points raised in the article, they’re cheaper.

  4. The problem with self-reliance is that if they expect you to learn it yourself and it’s new and out there the learning curve can be fairly steep. Often the problem isn’t so much how hard it is but where did they hide the feature you use a lot? There is no real reason to redesign the ‘dashboard’ just to make it look pretty, which I’ve seen too many times.

  5. Yes, it really is all about money. Hiring people and providing services are both expensive and both are being eliminated. In these times companies are increasingly chasing profits and that is what it is about. Speaking of which, on a further note, this week the Trump FCC – driven by the large ISP’s – has scheduled a vote to roll back net neutrality, and it is likely it will pass, fundamentally changing the Internet as we have always known it. Watch for unbundled service and fast and slow lanes which could be coming soon … but we can all rejoice that the ISP’s will be making more money.

    • Furthermore, back on the article topic, it is becoming evident that some companies are not providing services even if they are paid for. One example, when I signed up with Verizon as my ISP, the monthly cost included Yahoo Premium Mail. Yahoo partially provided Premium Mail with their Addressguard. However, when it came to the expected included customer support, Yahoo excluded Verizon-Yahoo subscribers and treated them as “free” customers. So for example, when the Yahoo hacking occurred and Yahoo didn’t bother to ask customers to change their passwords, VY customers were not able to communicate with them about it. The marketing pitch from Verizon had been the inclusion of Yahoo Premium Mail but in reality it was only half true.

    • I don’t agree that it’s always only about chasing profits. Often it’s the difference between providing the service without support (self reliance) – and not providing it at all.

    • On the comment about FCC rolling back net neutrality there will be a legal challenge… so it will not happen right off…also FCC really has to look at what LAWS congress passed.

      As far as Customer service automatic centers …a further thought here is that ALL such automatic routing should in my opinion have right off bat “Press 1 if a TDD relay call” which should route it right to a human and not go on through various press (insert) options till say press 6 for a human down the line

      ALL automated call centers in my view right off bat should have that press 1 if its a relay call
      as a HUMAN is necessary to answer such

  6. Some times it’s not a matter of the company not affording a one on one service, it’s really we can’t afford that service. A call centre with 300 seats may have a queue of maybe 10,000 callers waiting during peak periods. With wait times approaching 45minutes. For the company to offer a service that is deemed acceptable the labour and infrastructure facilities would be horrendous and of course passed on to the wnd user, You. Modern call centres that automate this work ultimately saves you a lot of money. Choice here….. great service or cheaper products. Can’t have both.

  7. One problem I see and have to fight through is all the automatic stuff press 1 for…. press 2 for… etc, being deaf and using relay it can result in slow response as I have to tell relay op what to do that it hangs up on

    The HUGE problem here especially with companys that outsource is its a possiable violation of the federal ADA act… and other laws in USA as it puts a roadblock in…and as far as “its about the money” if we could sue via ADA for millions for civil rights wrongs… personally the companys you wold see FAST a human op line once a few million dollar judgements occurred.

    But as it is all can do is complain to such as DOJ that seems not to be proactive about enforcing.

    I should not suffer hangups till we work out , me and relay op what to do on the call… because of automatic crap.

    Before so much became automated one could either call and get a human… or else send an Email..

    but I’m seeing also a lack of being even able to Email a customer service

    For Normal people It can be an annoyance, for others like deaf who have to go through another person in a relay call and suffer the automatics that expect a fast response ..otherwise hangs up on you… and limits on other ways to contact (email,) Its like pulling teeth and extreme frustrating at times and thats ILLEGAL business actions they get away with as legal actions limited… DOJ not people basically enforce…
    of course i could sue still but they count on the expense blocking that.

  8. You struck a nerve with me on this subject, but my beef is not with free services not providing support, but with products and services you pay for and get no support. I would rather do just about anything anymore than try to call any company in the hopes of getting a problem solved. Most of them won’t even publish a phone number anymore, if they do then you get to chase around in their automated system or sit on hold for hours at a time, or maybe get routed to some call center overseas where they can’t understand you and vice versa. None of their “knowledge bases” ever have anything in them even close to my problem. In fact many of the problems are due to lack of documentation. I’ve never understood why these companies that move all of their manufacturing and operations off shore won’t at least hire someone who can read and write English and provide some meaningful documentation. But of course all of the money that used to be spent on technical support people now goes to the top executives for cost-cutting bonuses, for eliminating those people. I’m old-school, and remember when the business motto was “the customer is always right” and a company valued their customers. Nowadays the customer is just considered a necessary nuisance. And they can get away with this because there is no good alternative anymore. It’s not like you can go to another company and do any better, ’cause they’re all using the same play-book.

  9. Two things – my limited observation ; Apple has much higher prices on devices – but ; walk into an Apple store and you have an amazing support team there ready to help. For my “non techy” friends – I recommend Apple for this reason. Secondly – forums / communities are usually available with helpful community to help. I use and participate in xda , as an example , for Android related discussions and help.

  10. I usually only call a company (this is real life not computer related) when I have a problem that I cannot address online. Usually when there is a response expected from me I say “representative” and that gets me to a real person. Also if that human cannot address the problem then ask to speak to a supervisor.

  11. Apple charges a premium for its products but for that price you get free lifetime support and diagnostics for its products in any Apple store. Even if your product is out of warranty they don’t charge anything to run diagnostics and fix software issues or offer advise. And if you pay for AppleCare you get support over the phone although I heard that’s even free now for basic help.

    • That’s one great feature of Apple. You can always bring your machine to an Apple shop, and they go out of their way to help. They never check where or when you bought the machine. I don’t know if all shops do this, but I can phone up any time and get an answer to my question. I don’t think they are as knowledgeable as a support team, but they usually understand most problems thrown at them.

  12. I am not technically minded, and after many cheap ISP’s here in the UK, whose help was non existent or useless, I’ve gone with a small company called Zen, who have award winning customer support. Real & knowledgable humans who sort any problem thoroughly, giving clear patient advice. It’s not the cheapest of course, you pay for what you get, but personally it’s worth every penny knowing help is there if needed.

  13. There’s usually not a voice menu choice in an IVR (Integrated Voice Response) system to reach a real person (by design). Sometimes you can say words like representative or agent & the system is programmed to respond to those. What I’ve found that works more reliably is to press the 0 (zero) button once or sometimes multiple times to reach an agent. Most but not all IVR systems are programmed to respond to this non-published & largely unknown input.

  14. Every time I call my bank or other services which have live support, I always get the message. “We are experiencing higher than normal call volumes, and it may take longer than expected to speak to a representative.” Translated to normal English, it means. “We are experiencing normal call volumes, but we are too cheap to hire sufficient staff to handle our calls.”
    Has anyone ever called their bank and not gotten a message like that?

  15. Mark:

    Not to defend your bank or any other business, but as Leo said – agents cost money. Most call centers staff to the average call volume & peak demand means longer wait times. If they were to staff to peak volumes that come & go in waves usually then there would be a lot of idle agents during normal times.

    It’s the same for any service business. Take your local grocery store. They try & follow the same model but how many times have you had to wait in long checkout lines because they don’t have enough cashiers on duty. Same thing as the call centers.

    • My bank is the largest bank in the US. It’s famous for all kinds of shenanigans to rip customers off like changing the order of credit card purchases and payments to maximize late fees. The least they can do is spend some of those billions on decent customer support.

    • Some institutions outsource their call centres to countries with lower wage rates. This means you have to speak to a foreign national with limited English, and no knowledge of the local customers needs.

      • Actually, my bank uses call centers in the US. I don’t think a serious bank would trust someone in another country with the ability to access and move customers’ money. The lack of accountability would be dangerous, not to mention the scandal if people found out.

  16. I don’t care what the justification is for automated phone lines, and to my mind, “it’s just business” is a poor justification, I’m no longer willing to do business with businesses that don’t support their customers in a personable way. That means, automated phone lines? no money from me, I’m voting with my feet. My purchases are now local, small online business, or local crafts based. For instance, after an hour spent looking for pajamas online at large retailers, I found what I needed in 5 minutes from Etsy. Bye bye box store, robot call line.
    As for services, I’m standing in line and talking to a representative in my town. I know that doesn’t work for everyone, but for those who can…Who’s with me?

  17. Phone books like the good old 10lb White Pages, being extinct, I thought to simply call 411 for a local residential number. A female recording instructed me to “Speak the name of the party, do not spell it. Tell me the address.”
    I said, “Carl Jackson.” She said, ” Carol Jenkins. Is that correct? There is no listing at that address.”
    That continued with minor variations through my third attempt. I gave up.
    Oh, I’m American by birth, have a BS degree, speak with no discernible regional accent, nor do I lisp or stutter. And my call was made using my AT&T landline.

  18. Leo, you wrote:

    “I’m not referring to the company formerly known as Twitter.”

    Twitter is no longer Twitter?! (I really need to pay attention to the web more…) This is news to me! What on Earth is it called now?!?

  19. When I have called “Customer Service” it is generally with a problem that I cannot explain completely. “It is not working” does not lead to finding out what the problem is. Part of that is that they understand the program or service, hopefully, better than I do. What I see as a problem may not be a problem for them as they just work around it.
    The other issue is when the company hires foreign workers to provide customer service. I understand that somebody on the other side of the world will be working when everybody on my side is home or asleep, thus being available. But many times I have had real problems with their accents. Indian English is not like American English, or even British English.

  20. My problem is a lot of the time when you have a service where there is a live person to talk to
    they are so foreign that I can barely understand them, so why bother. I just hang up!

  21. Note: I’m not discussing “What should be” here, but “What is”.

    In my experience, Customer Service is at best, a hit-or-miss proposition even when it’s for something you pay for. When I choose a free service, the main thing I look for (if I can find it) is a well organized and very complete FAQ/knowledge-base that I can refer to if I need help/information, and (if I’m lucky) a community forum. I NEVER expect any kind of support beyond that, and you shouldn’t either.

    Let’s face it, companies exist to make profit. They are beholden to their owners/stockholders, not their customers/service users. If they provide anything, they do so at the smallest ongoing cost possible, and when it’s something for free, that means no ongoing cost – period. As a result, we – their potential customers – have a choice: 1. use their free service with no support, or 2. find a similar for-pay service with support. If you choose option 1 (as above), somewhere in the user’s agreement, there will be an “as is” clause, another telling the user “These terms may change at our (the company’s) option”, and (usually) another concerned with the types of support they’ll make available (if any). This usually consists of a knowledge-base/FAQ and sometimes (seldom in my experience) a community forum where users can help each other.

    As stated above, these are my observations/opinions. Like it or don’t, this is the situation we are all faced with. There is no such thing as a “Free ride” and none of us has any right to expect one.


    Ernie (Oldster)

  22. That’s quite an appropriate reminder. However, there are exceptions, and I would like to mention two of them.

    I use a very good British alias service, called, which provides an infinite number of email addresses and a management system which practically eliminates spam. It runs on the freemium model. Not only the entry-level plan is dirt-cheap at 12 $/year, but there’s a free plan which is fully operational as well.

    And what do you know ? All users are entitled to customer service, even holders of free plans. Moreover, the person providing the answers is the developer himself… who programs and runs the service alone.

    Not only that, but the level of personalisation you get when requesting help is tremendous. Do try it. The product is superb, and new features are added at breakneck speed. You can even request new features on the company’s Reddit (r/, and the answer is, quite often : yes, good idea, I’ll implement it. And the guy implements it soon after. For the same price (or none at all).

    Now it might be the case that he becomes so successful, that at some point, he won’t be able to do it anymore, but it the meantime, I would recommend you take advantage of it.

    Another place where you can get good-quality support from a competent human being, while having paid nothing, is PDF-XChange. This company, split between Canada and Great-Britain, makes a splendid pdf reader and editor which also runs on the freemium model. The free version is extremely powerful, and it’s all you need if you only want to read and annotate documents.

    Asking questions on its official forum will often elicit answers from moderators working for the company, who have a very good knowledge of the product.

    Generally speaking, when choosing software, I recommend checking whether there is an official forum. If this is the case, it’s very active and it’s accessible to free users, it’s often the way to get good-quality support, even if you have paid nothing for the program. It might be the case that employees from the company itself tackle the most difficult questions, at which point it’s as good as a conventional customer hotline.

  23. This problem also exists for paid services, try getting through to someone to discuss a problem with Adobe Lightroom.
    This is happening because providers are trying to increase their margins by cutting costs. The real underlying reason which makes these companies believe they can get away with it is that over time certain generations of consumers have little or no idea about what they should reasonably expect in terms of after sales support. This is because they have been under educated in terms of common sense areas of life such as this subject. Company’s understand this very well and look to exploit this shortfall by taking advantage of consumers. Unfortunately this means we all suffer. How many electrical items now come with no printed user guides. Some expensive cameras now come with no battery charger, you have to buy it separately. This eventually becomes the norm. Clearly it’s a rip off.
    The question is how do we reverse this rediculous scandalous situation?

  24. We have a value. Our name. The databases companies use is of massive value to advertisers. We are exposed to dozens of database/advertising organisations. We give our names for free, in return for free services. And I would add, tailor made advertising. In return our names are sold to other companies.

    However, the worst habit is for companies from whom we have bought goods. In many if not most cases, the customer service is appalling and many have resorted to AI which often offers irrelevent choices and stupid answers. This borrows directly from free services and will spread as companies try to cut costs.

    • Whenever I get promotional emails from a company I’ve bought from but didn’t give explicit permission to write me, I mark those emails as spam. It may not be spam according to the law, but it’s spam according to the definition — an unsoliceted email. If enough people do this, it will get that company on antispam lists and affect their ability to send email. A small punishment for wasting our time and illing up our inboxes.

      • While I don’t disagree with the approach, depending on the situation I’d be concerned that something I needed/wanted to see from that company would eventually be filtered into spam.

  25. My beef is with those companies that offer free Applications with announced free support services and contact links and/or feedback options, and when one asks something you never gets a response.
    How would you qualify their behaviour?

  26. The banks in Australia esp. the big 4 banks have phone lines but the automated voice pushes people to online to solve their issue; or, the typical, experiencing a high volume of calls, long delay, etc. It’s rare to get through to a human.

  27. I can always reach a real person at my bank’s phone number. Funny how every time I call, they happen to be “experiencing a higher-than-normal call volume”. I guess normal call volume for them is after hours when they’re closed. When I call, I put my phone on speaker and keep busy doing something else.

  28. Hi Leo,
    You opened by mentioning Facebook. I had a problem where somebody opened an Instagram account in my name resulting in both that Instagram account AND my Facebook account being suspended, alleging that I had uploaded illegal material to Instagram. I tried to get my Facebook account back but could not find how to. As you say, there are no phone numbers, emails received no response, and their web pages where you are supposed to report any difficulties did not work i.e. did not send my message.
    Is there any way I can get around this problem?

    In the end, I created a new Facebook account with a different email address. My first post explained why I had created the new account. In a short time and I immediately got a handful of replies offering to get my account back. Presuming these people were probably hackers I ignored them


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