Business

Shirley Leung

Call center wait times can be guarded corporate secrets

I was feeling sorry for myself the other day, on hold with Delta Air Lines for 1½ hours, trying to sort through my canceled flight to Orlando.

C’mon, you have to feel something for me. Here I was hours away from escaping from our arctic Alcatraz with sky-high snowbanks and T trains that never seem to show up. But winter wasn’t going to let us go without a fight, and it may have the same vise grip on your warm-weather getaway.

To get the airline’s attention, I did what every other Bostonian has been doing this week: taking to Twitter to complain about delays. But combing through @DeltaAssist, I soon realized I had no right to kvetch.

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One customer, @edborbely, was on hold for three hours, and I would discover later that another, @alevine31, had been waiting four hours. His missive was quite polite for someone forced to listen to mindless music all that time: “@DeltaAssist I have been on hold for an hour after being on hold for 4 hours last night. This is ridiculous.”

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You call that a rant? Try this one, courtesy of @EmiliaPetrarca, after the airline’s automated system warned her the wait might be four hours: “Pro tip: use the bathroom and write your last will and testament before you get on hold with Delta.”

In my own case, I got a response from @DeltaAssist two minutes after my tweet. I was asked for more information about my situation. I responded, but no answers ever arrived.

Call center wait times can be guarded corporate secrets, but social media have given everyone an outlet and in the process a window into who’s complaining about whom.

Two years ago, Fonolo, a Toronto outfit that sells a call-back service to companies, began tracking tweets with the phrase “on hold with.” When I wrote that I was “on hold with” Delta, I immediately got a tweet from Fonolo informing me that 35 others were in a similar holding pattern with the carrier.

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Airlines typically top the list as the worst offenders for keeping people on hold, according to Fonolo CEO Shai Berger. Gripes tend to spike when bad weather derails travel plans. Social media give people a soap box, but Berger also thinks that in the digital age we crave instant service.

“Calling in and being on hold feels like a throwback to the last century,” Berger said. “People are impatient.”

When I finally reached a human from Delta, he was fast and pleasant in redoing all our travel plans. And ours were a particular mess: My husband was automatically rebooked to fly out Tuesday, while the rest of us were due out the next day.

As for getting a nonstop like our original ticket, fuggedaboutit. No chance whatsoever after hundreds of flights out of Logan were canceled ahead of, during, and after Monday’s nor’easter.

This made me think about the psychology of waiting — and I had plenty of time to ruminate, with Delta forcing us to take the scenic route through Cincinnati on our way to Florida.

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Should I really be mad at Delta? This was, after all, a record-breaking stretch of winter weather for us.

There was really only one person who could help me sort this through: MIT professor Richard Larson, a.k.a. “Dr. Queue.” He really is an expert in queues. For two decades he has studied the psychology of waiting.

First, he tells me, the wait could have been much worse. If everyone who called in to Delta customer service didn’t hang up after a few minutes, I would have been on hold closer to five hours.

Second, he said, there’s not much Delta or any airline can do when they have a flood of customer complaints. It’s not cost-effective to have backup staff trained to deal with a rash of rebookings.

“When the weather is good, it’s running like a beautiful Swiss watch, “ Larson said of the airlines. But when the weather is bad, “that Swiss watch completely falls apart and becomes a Rube Goldberg device.”

He said, in all seriousness, that only robots can help solve this dilemma. And he thinks we’re about five years away from getting ones intelligent enough to do the job.

So any advice in the meantime? Get a travel agent.

“They have a shortcut,” Larson said. “I have given up trying to phone the airlines.”

It took me two days to get an official response from Delta on why customers were on hold for so long. Monday, I was told, was a bad day for the airline, between the snowstorm and the technical glitches.

As for us, we finally made it to Orlando, where, with our vacation cut short, we had no time to complain.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.