Always Right

Have the Menu Options Really Changed? A Slate Investigation.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by iStock.

Think automated phone directories maintain a boring and rote existence? Allow their prerecorded operators to set you straight. Please listen carefully to the following prompts, their voices intone, as they have changed. Sometimes this ubiquitous notice is phrased as a warning that the menu options may have changed. This phone system is so wild and crazy, we’re told, that truly anything is possible.

Keep your head on a swivel, humble caller, lest you lose yourself in a touch-tone labyrinth.

We’ve all heard this story of telephonic entropy, about the mischievous, Loki-like forces who sneak around at night playing three-card monte with phone menus. That’s what these robot voices want us to believe. But is it the truth? Did the menu options really change?

“I have to be completely honest with you—I have no idea,” a Vonage representative told me (over the phone, naturally). While Vonage sells automated call systems, he explained, they don’t advise customers to include that admonition to please listen carefully. “It’s strictly up to them,” he said. “I don’t know why they say that.”

Following this conversation, I called a pharmacy that I knew featured a well-worn notice of potential menu chaos. I sat through seven options before I was advised to press 8 to speak with the “next available operator.” When she came on the line, I asked if she knew when the menu options had been changed, or if they’d changed at all. After a considerable pause, she answered, “I don’t know.” And so I pressed on. Later in the week, I called the same pharmacy and asked the same question to a different operator. Her reply: “No, ma’am, I don’t know.” I’m a little unsure as to why she called me “ma’am,” but my adventure through the world of phone menus was already providing surprising twists and turns.

Prerecorded message systems date back to at least 1957, when Sheraton began testing automatic wake-up calls at their hotels. “[A] guest … is awakened by an operator’s soft voice on a recording,” the New York Times wrote of this new technology, “which breathes his name, tells him the time and weather, and suggests a breakfast menu at the hotel restaurant.” It would be decades before touch-tone phones were popular enough to make more complex routing systems a customer service norm. If their recordings are to be believed, menu items have been in flux ever since.

Cynics may think this is part of a calculated effort to keep callers on the line or to prevent them from mashing 0 until they get to speak to a live operator. It’s unlikely, though, that a conspiracy is afoot. Only one of the five communications companies I contacted told me they advise their customers to include a notice about changing menu items, and that firm suggests removing such an announcement after three weeks. The available evidence suggests they weren’t putting me on: None of these companies’ own prerecorded menus told me that menu items may have changed.

“We don’t specifically recommend that companies do this,” said Valerie Martin, a sales and service lead at AccessDirect, which sells virtual phone services for small businesses.* So why does everyone do it, disregarding the wisdom of the industry’s leading experts? Martin’s theory: “I think the majority of companies do this because they have heard it before in a greeting.”

“I think it’s a hackneyed term,” Andrew Begnoche told me, referring to menu items may have changed. Begnoche is the director of operations for Holdcom, a New Jersey–based company that provides businesses with scripts and voice talent for prerecorded phone systems. “We try and stay away from any language that seems like it could be [insincere]. Like overusing the word please.”

Menu items do change, Begnoche says, especially at larger companies with vast employee directories and complex operational structures. However, these changes usually come deep within the routing tree, buried inside dendritic clusters most callers never reach. Alerting customers to this fact doesn’t do them much good, not least because they’ve learned to tune out this specific phrasing. According to Begnoche, “People don’t pay attention to it anymore.”

But how often do the menu options change? Someone give me an answer!

“There’s no real way to predict when [a company] will change their phone tree,” Adam Goldkamp told me. Goldkamp is the director of operations for GetHuman, a startup that helps people navigate customer service interactions. GetHuman, which has “a small team dedicated to checking the phone numbers to see when they change,” does track how often a particular set of menu options becomes an entirely different set of menu options, and Goldkamp says airlines and hotels tend to change their phone trees most often.* And about that menu items may have changed prompt: “That message appears in just about every phone tree and I’ve never actually found it to mean anything useful,” he said. That makes two of us, sir.

The most baffling thing about these messages is their presumptuousness. Do companies really think we’ve memorized their phone options? Perhaps there are menu-heads out there who know these prompts by heart, storing them in their brains alongside the statistics of their favorite ballplayers. If so, I haven’t encountered such people in the wild.

It’s possible the listen carefully prompt will soon be a thing of the past, replaced by a prompt to speak clearly. Interactive voice response technology, known as IVR in the biz, relies on the Socratic method, in that menu sections are accessed via voice responses to specific questions. These systems are frustrating in their own right, given their robotic lack of candor and propensity to ask you to repeat yourself.

In search of answers, I called CVS, which uses IVR for its phone systems. “When was the last time you changed your menu?” I barked. I was then transferred to a message about store locations and flu shot information. CVS is clearly hiding something. If I keep listening carefully and/or shouting loudly, I’m sure I’ll get to the bottom of it.

*Correction, Oct. 9, 2017: This post originally misstated that GetHuman doesn’t track how often menu options change. The company does track that information.

*Update, Oct. 10, 2017: This post has been updated to add the name of the AccessDirect representative the author spoke to.