Press 1 to Fail

When I call a customer service line and am asked to press 1 for English, I’m really not put off. Living in Texas, I’m around many who speak Spanish, including many who worked hard at my home in recent months during a major remodel. I wish I was bi-lingual. That said, I was put off when I called my utility company to inquire about lower rates. I pressed 1 for English, but the person who answered could hardly speak the language.

Here in Texas, we have to choose our electricity provider in a competitive market. Rates can vary a lot, depending if you want energy that comes from more green sources such as wind and solar, or from traditional sources. Add to the choices of the energy source, you choose based on the duration of the contract or if you want your contract to be month-to-month.

The challenge is that there are dozens of choices. It’s confusing. For the consumer, it is definitely buyer-beware because about the only way you’re going to get the best deal is to crunch numbers based on your historical energy usage. Add to the complexity that some plans have a monthly fee, and that there is a separate charge from Oncor who is in charge of maintaining lines to your home, and there are at least three variables to consider in your final price.

Electrical rates, of course, are published online for comparison at But when it comes to analyzing and comparing, I’m one of those people who finds it faster to talk to someone. Besides, all too many company websites want you to first register and create a password just to get a free quote.

So a few days ago, I realized it was that time when I had let my contract run on auto-renewal and that I should check rates. I made the first call to TXU, my current electricity provider. I knew in an instant this wasn’t going to go well. Clearly, English wasn’t this customer representative’s first language. I had a lot of questions. I asked him to present a few options. I needed to fact check the details, like those pesky automatic monthly charges that vary from plan-to-plan and can add up. After a few minutes of struggling to understand him and not getting clarity, I decided to call Reliant, who was my provider several years ago.

This time, I pressed 1 for English and was talking to someone who could explain the details of the various offer choices. I could understand him. After being presented four options, I chose the one that should save about $60 a month (and I’m kicking myself for not having checked sooner with natural gas prices having fallen so much).

TXU lost a customer worth a few thousand dollars annually.

So here is a teaching-moment for any of you who have people on telephones talking to customers:

  1. If you give your customers the option to press 1 for English, make sure your agent can clearly speak English.
  2. Please use an authentic name. How many of us have called a company and spoken with “Mike” when it seems a little unlikely this guy’s name is really Mike.
  3. If you have a complex product to sell that requires explaining several options and details, have a system in place to make presentation of that information easy to convey. Maybe it’s helping a customer use an online form if they want to see or interact with the numbers.

As a footnote to this story, the next day I was called by TXU. The caller was friendly, articulate, and knowledgeable, and asked why I left. I told her. She apologized for the language issue. When I asked her how I could get back the money I had overpaid because of a credit accumulation through average monthly billing, she said she’d put me through to the billing department so I could find out. But after about 90 seconds of ringing, and not even the usual “all of our operators are helping other customers…” I gave up. That’s another call to make for another day. Hopefully with someone who can speak English.


Gary Hennerberg

After a lot of years in marketing and sales, this is what I know works:

Stories sell. Think unique. Stimulate emotion. Close deals. And here are a few other gems from my new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code.” Know the persona, interpret your offer and let your prospect give themselves permission to buy. That’s how the brain is wired. It’s how people think.

What else? When I’m not breaking down complex topics (or ones marketers over-complicate) into easy-to-grasp stories that sell, I crunch numbers. Manage projects. Write. Teach. Lead.