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Something that unites us all in these fractious times is anger about terrible phone service from businesses and government.

Banks and insurance companies are part of the problem, but so are telecom companies, airlines, the Canada Revenue Agency and other government agencies. You might wait several hours to talk to a human, while running the risk of being randomly disconnected. It’s not unusual to have to try on successive days to reach someone, which is potentially a problem if you’re locked out of your chequing or credit card account.

The internet and smartphones have improved access to services like banking, investing and booking travel immeasurably. You can bank on the bus or in bed using a smartphone app, and arrange flights, check your account with the CRA or pay your telecom bill. Investing from the bathroom using a smartphone was a thing during the stock trading frenzy of early 2021.

But the more business we do online, the more dependent we are on human contact to help us when our connection breaks down or we have an issue that can’t be resolved online. Anyone can get locked out for fumbling their password because they’re in a hurry or having trouble remembering recently changed login information. Seniors face additional obstacles if they have arthritis, neuropathy or other conditions that affect their accuracy as a typist, or if they’re not comfortable with online transactions.

You can also get tripped up trying to remember the answer to security questions some financial firms use to verify the identity of clients logging into their account. Passwords and security questions are designed to thwart hackers trying to gain access to accounts to steal money. But they also create obstacles that can easily trip up the rightful owner of the account.

Long waits to speak to live representatives at businesses and government agencies have been a thing for ages, but the pandemic has taken the problem to the next level. It can’t have been easy for companies and government agencies to deploy call centre staff in lockdown conditions. Also, the pandemic has shaken up the labour market in ways that make it hard for some employers to attract staff.

But the persistence of long waiting times has drained the reservoir of understanding and left customers feeling angry and disrespected. If companies are having trouble attracting call centre staff, try higher wages and better working conditions.

What happened with online brokers in late 2020 and early this year suggests there is some sensitivity to customer anger about bad phone service. Brokers scrambled to hire and train staff and there has been a marked decline in both wait times and complaints on social media about delays.

But long waits for so many other services are the new abnormal. Earlier this week, I asked on Twitter for examples of long waits to contact customer support. Replies poured out like a firehose mentioning the likes of Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto-Dominion Bank (especially TD Insurance), Bank of Nova Scotia, Tangerine, Expedia, Aeroplan, Air Miles, CRA, Telus, Rogers, Bell, WestJet and Air Canada.

“WestJet – they called back after two days,” one person responded. Hey, us, too. My wife took WestJet up on an offer to leave a phone number and have a rep call back later to discuss a flight change made by the airline. The call came in 36 hours later, at 9 p.m.

My favourite response on phone wait times: “What’s worse is the pathetic message, ‘We are experiencing higher than usual call volumes.’ If it’s unusual, why do I hear this every time I call?”

By all means, try shaming companies that have endless phone queues – I’ve seen tweets and messages on a company’s public Facebook page work in getting a direct response from customer support. Dropping into stores and offices to get help may also help send a message.

The irony in all of this is that people you eventually speak to at banks and other companies are often sincerely helpful. It’s too bad their employers won’t do what they need to do to hire more of them.

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