Time inflation – dealing with companies

There can be significant time inflation associated with doing any task that requires interaction with a service provider company such as an internet provider, health care, utility or phone carrier. Increasing you find yourself on the phone, trying to resolve relatively basic account issues, battling call centers and slow processing. For example this week took 40 mins on the phone to close out an assigned short position in an IRA, due to Fidelity back office process, and the agent was very knowledgeable and efficient – that would have been ultra painful if they knew less.


Essentially companies are taking your time to make you self service requests with automated call centers and websites, rather than employing their own staff time to fix issues. This has massive economies of scale for a company because essentially they outsource several pieces of the account management process to their customers.

Let’s have a quick look at some of the pain points here for you as a customer:

Selling your data

You are often required to complete a significant amount of personal information just to get the basic service. The burden of proof is always on you to authenticate who you are, not on the organisation to provide the authentication service in different ways. Basically unless you can interact with exactly the required authentication mechanism then you will have a hard time interacting with that company.
Also if there is a data breach you typically just get an apology and sometimes free credit monitoring for a year or so (not compensation).

Time Inflation – Inefficient by design?

For certain businesses, especially health care providers, eventually you become convinced that their business model is to deliberately incorrectly bill a percentage of their customers. The hassle factor means that customers will not start to pursue claims or even if they do the chain of work required to get a result will be so overwhelming that people often give up and not pursue what they are entitled to. Effectively they have no financial incentive (eg fines for poor performance) to fix your problem, and the more time you spend on the problem the less financial return you get.

Loads of Logins

In complex account processing (like healthcare) many functions can be outsourced to multiple different providers. However often each provider can require their own individual login, which can give a frustrating customer sign up and login experience.

If there was the global concept of single sign on across all providers (eg twitter or Facebook) with 2 factor authentication password & auto generated token – that would be amazing. If every company had a similar standard that was proven secure, then every company wouldn’t have to implement their own standard (by definition some are better at security than others so there is little point in everyone trying to implement the same thing).

Being passed around

Customer service is really important to reduce time inflation on the phone. Aetna or United healthcare have been without fail terrible, with every individual question seemingly requiring a transfer to a dept where the person doesn’t seem to know the answer anyway.
Chase sapphire preferred customer service has always been prompt and courtesy and helpful.


Alright – that’s enough moaning! How about some solutions?

Fake It

Use your own fake data with a made up personality. Simply don’t use real information for security questions – create a made up personal profile that sounds plausible but isn’t you. This will improve security if hacked. If you really want to improve the security don’t use real word answers to the questions, use answers similar to complex passwords (e.g. zXcvGjhUgh). Store your fake answers in a password protected spreadsheet in a central location such as dropbox (that way you can access it from your phone when you are out of the house).

You can also use someone’s else’s “real” fake data. There are websites that have user/passwords for many existing domains, for example Bug Me Not. You can simply enter the domain you are trying to access (eg www.oracle.com) then login with the real user/passwords already created by other users. If the user/pass combination works you can up vote it on the website (so other users will know if it works).

Do your research

Investigate online reviews before signing up, and research customer service before you sign up for a service. There is a value on your time. This is a problem only if you need to interact with customer service more than once or twice a year. If you can exclusively interact with a service provider online through the year, then the fact they have poor customer service may not be relevant.

Skip poor phone agents

Don’t waste your time with unknowledgable agents – play call center roulette. If you get a hard to deal with agent, politely end the call after they have resolved one issue (if you have many issues). If are just not getting any traction on your one issue just politely end the call and redial. A good agent will be multiple times faster than a bad agent. Admittedly this is a gamble because it might end up being slower (but that’s why it’s called call center roulette :-).

Use call me back

Ask if good agent if they can call you back later. Say you have multiple questions and ask for them all to be resolved in one call back. Don’t ask one question at a time and let them put you on hold for each one. Sometimes they might take a few hours or days to get back, but if the issue is not urgent it is better to have them ping you (just set a reminder on your phone to call them back of they don’t respond).

If phone call center offers immediate call back always take the call back option where you manually enter in your phone so the system can automatically call back and connect you direct to an agent.

Zen approach

Try and psychologically alter how you think about being on hold. Either use the spare time to relax or meditate, or try and achieve a 5 min task quickly while you wait. Try and reprogram your brain about how you think about being on hold. Use the speaker phone option to listen to the hold music while you either relax or work, that way you might actually be disappointed when the agent comes back on the line! If you think about hold time as a time to either relax or get things done in the background, versus getting frustrated with lack of response, then you will be better able to respond when the agent comes back on the line.

You Call agent back later

Ask if you can get the direct call back information for good agents you deal with. Store names and numbers in a spreadsheet for next time you call (even if it will be months later). Dealing directly with someone who is competent can save you lots of time.

Don’t call

Use instant message or secure emAil on the company website. Not all companies offer this, but it can be.n effective way to get non urgent responses without calling. Sometimes only get generic responses that force you to call in for more information, however some companies are effective at providing info in messages.

Write in

Although it is old fashioned for certain types of non urgent responses it maybe faster for you to write in your request. If you are typically on hold for 30 mins, it maybe quicker for you to write and mail a letter in 10mins. This is only effective If you have computer, printer, envelopes and stamps handy and you are close to a post box. otherwise you might spend more time doing all of that than simy calling in (but at least you can assess that). This only works if you are sure you are providing enough info for the company to resolve the problem. If you miss out even a small amount of info, they will delight in responding with a generic response letter to improve their customer response statistics. Be as specific as possible and don’t let them give you a generic response. Sometimes a well worded request or complaint letter, can yield better results than just calling the generic call center, because if it is complex or a complaint it would generally get forwarded to a manager who hopefully would be more of subject matter expert. It can also arguably be more secure to mail in documents with personally identifiable information (such as SSN) than send them unencrypted over email.

Our real life experiences

This is an attempt to rate companies we have interacted with. This table shows ratings for several categories and gives an average total. 1 = poor, 3 = average, 5 = excellent. These are the ratings:

Rating Column
Rating Description
Call pickup timeInitial time taken to answer the phone
1 = always very fast, 5 = very slow
Staff knowledgeHow much does a typical call center staff member know without having to ask.
5=all questions, 1= put on hold for every question
Hold time to answer questionsHow long does it take to get answer after you have been on hold
5= less than a minute, very quick response.
1 = takes more than 10mins and then still not resolved
Tone under pressureWhat is the call center staff tone when they cant answer the question or go.
5 = remain professional and helpful
1 = back chat implying its your fault for asking, barely hold it together.
AverageAverage of all the above ratings to give a total company interaction rating.
5 = excellent, 1 = very poor

Sometimes the same company has improved ratings for different products – for example we rate Fidelity active trader services call center as higher than the traditional Fidelity broker call center. This table maybe updated over time as we add more companies:

Company Interaction Ratings

Call pickup time
Staff knowledge
Hold time after questions
Tone under pressure
FidelityStandard brokerage account23333
FidelityActive trader services34444
ChaseStandard checking33333
Chaseshaphire preferred credit card54455
Merrill edgeStandard Brokerage21-111
Lending ClubInvestor services34444
CitibankCredit cards33323
AetnaHealth Insurance22212
United HealthcareHealth Insurance21212
United AirlinesStandard Flight booking33333
American Airlines Standard Flight booking23343


In summary it can be hard to avoid wasting time when dealing with companies as a customer. However hopefully the above ideas can help speed up some interactions to make it less painful and reduce the time inflation spent on these mundane things.