Dialing it up: The evolution of phone support

The invention of the telephone revolutionized the way businesses interacted with their customers. With Intercom Switch, we want to take it even further.

We’ve come a long way from the days of clunky desktop computers and electronic hobbyists. With each season, laptops get thinner, and phones get smarter. But while computing technology has evolved tremendously in the past few decades, we can’t say the same about phones. At least about the way we use them in business. Messaging is increasingly ubiquitous in our personal lives, yet we still pick up the phone to talk to support in the same way we did 50 years ago.

Phone calls have been the bread and butter for support teams for decades, but they can’t singlehandedly meet ever-increasing customer expectations for quick and seamless support. Phone support is expensive, inefficient, and just not scaleable – especially for internet businesses. That’s why we created Switch – not to eliminate the option of phone support but to help our customers expand their users’ options. Stuck in a support queue with a long hold time? Switch to messaging mid-call. Switch is the best of both worlds: it combines the personal touch of a phone call with the convenience of messaging. And just like that, no more waiting on hold, no more pesky elevator music, no more never-ending inbound support volumes.

And so, to celebrate our most recent launch, we thought we’d take you on a quick tour into the evolution of phone support – from an old recording of Alexander Graham Bell to the science of on-hold music; from the dawn of call centers to personalized support at scale.

In this episode, you’ll hear from:

  • Ernie Smith, writer, editor, and the internet obsessive who writes the newsletter Tedium: The Dull Side of the Internet;
  • Cornelia Connolly, lecturer at the School of Education, National University of Ireland, Galway;
  • Paul Shuler, percussionist, musician, and composer of “Simplicity”, a song which has been dubbed “the best hold music in the world”;
  • Tanner Elvidge, senior product manager at Intercom and one of the people behind Intercom Switch.

And if you want to find out more about Switch, you can read our latest article or visit its own feature page.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

The rise of the telephone

Liam Geraghty: We’ve all been there, waiting to talk to customer service, on hold – it’s a shared human experience that seems to have transcended generations of phone users. And you’d be forgiven for thinking that calling a business now isn’t that much different from how it was 60 or 70 years ago. Well that may be true, it still involves a phone and calling a number. But phone support and the tech behind it have actually been evolving, albeit quietly in the background while you were on hold.

Today on Inside Intercom, we’re dialing in for an episode all about the evolution of phone support, one that Intercom is part of. We just launched Intercom Switch. The clue’s in the name.

Phone Operator: Welcome to Intercom Switch, the new way to take your customers from on hold to messaging in seconds. Ready to see how it works? Press one on your dial pad now. Great. Next, you’ll get a text message with a link in it – just tap that link to move this conversation into the Intercom messenger. Chat soon.

Liam Geraghty: It’s as easy as that. Reduce wait times by giving your customers the choice to switch to messaging mid-call so they can say goodbye to sitting on hold. Later on, we’re going to talk to Tanner Elvidge, the senior product manager on Switch. But we couldn’t do the evolution of phone support without starting with the invention of the telephone. If anyone asked you who invented the telephone, you’d say Alexander Graham Bell, right? Here’s a recording of Bell from 1885 from a disc in the Smithsonian. “Hear my voice,” he says.

“Even though the telephone’s origin story isn’t exactly clear, its impact on the world has been immeasurable, transforming all sorts of lines of communication”

In the 1870s, Bell and a man named Elisha Gray both independently designed inventions that allowed people to transmit speech electrically. They even both submitted their designs to the patent office within hours of each other. But Bell’s was the first to be patented, and a famous legal battle ensued over who was the rightful inventor of the telephone, with Bell being the eventual winner. But even to this day, some people have their doubts. And it wasn’t just those two laying claims – an Italian immigrant named Antonio Meucci filed an announcement of his similar invention in 1871.

He was totally overlooked until the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution in 2002 honoring his contributions and work to the telephone. And even though the telephone’s origin story isn’t exactly clear, its impact on the world has been immeasurable, transforming all sorts of lines of communication – one of them being how businesses can help their customers.

The first example of the telephone being used as a marketing tool is in the early 1900s. Companies would use phone directories used to compile and sell client lists. By 1915, the first coast-to-coast telephone call was placed. And by 1930, it was possible to phone across the Atlantic by radio.

“Suddenly, it became possible for telephone customers to operate this complex communication system by themselves”

Liam Geraghty: Phone technology slowly crept across America, creating a communications infrastructure. But it required people manning switchboards at a high cost, and as such, it was only available to a small portion of the population. That is until the introduction of consumer long-distance dialing in 1951.

Suddenly, it became possible for telephone customers to operate this complex communication system by themselves without the assistance of others. What you might call the first call center agents were housewives in the ’50s. They’d call up friends and neighbors and try to sell baked goods to bring extra money into the household. Businesses began to get phone-wise and trained their employees on how to be courteous on the line.

Vintage Training Video: But no matter whose phone you’re answering, your own or anybody else’s, always make your customer feel that you’re interested in his call. Be obliging and polite. Then when you’re sure he’s finished, bring the conversation to a definite courteous close like this. Yes, that’s fine. Thanks for calling Mr. Frisbee. Goodbye.

From toll-free numbers to mobile technology

Liam Geraghty: By the 1960s, more sophisticated dialing technology had arrived and would start to shape phone support as we know it today.

Ernie Smith: Touch-tone dialing was a really big one.

Liam Geraghty: That’s Ernie Smith.

Ernie Smith: I’m a writer and editor. I write a newsletter called Tedium: The Dull Side of the Internet.

Liam Geraghty: Even though the first touch-tone dialing came about in the ’60s, Ernie says rotary dialing was still pretty common into the 1980s.

Ernie Smith: It took a couple of decades to become common. Things that we don’t even think about becoming common over time, that seemed like they just appeared one day. A good example is the credit card. The magnetic strip did not appear until the ’80s. Before that, everything was done manually. Rotary phones are very much the same thing.

Liam Geraghty: More and more of the things we just take for granted when it comes to phones began to develop and advance. Ernie says there were five key technologies that made phone-based customer support possible. The first was, as we heard, touch-tone dialing. It made it possible to communicate through the telephone line without speaking. The second was 1-800 numbers.

Ernie Smith: Which were actually invented by AT&T. Roy Weber developed them in 1967 as a way to route collect calls. And it turned out as a happy accident that it was actually a really great way to market products.

“By the mid-’80s, people were making 3 billion toll-free calls per year”

Liam Geraghty: The charge of a 1-800 number went to the owner of the number. So now, customers didn’t have to pay to call a business for support.

Ernie Smith: This actually turned out to be a pretty big cash cow for AT&T. By the mid-’80s, people were making 3 billion toll-free calls per year, which is a lot.

Liam Geraghty: The next key tech in the evolution of phone support was something called private branch exchanges. They were essentially mini switchboards that allowed businesses to route phone calls.

Ernie Smith: One of the interesting things to consider is that the phone system basically grew from being this big monolith operated by effective monopolies like AT&T in the US.

Liam Geraghty: So businesses having these miniature switchboards democratized the whole process.

Ernie Smith: You were running your own little system where you could route where the calls go. This is obviously a great thing in the case of a call center when you have hundreds of people on the floor trying to serve customers. And this would basically route whatever call came to a customer support person. It enabled call centers by allowing a more automated system and keeping it something that didn’t require phone companies to manage.

Liam Geraghty: The 1970s came with bell-bottoms, tie-dye shirts, and new tech that we still use today in phone support – interactive voice responses.

Ernie Smith: This was first used by banks to verify customer balances. You didn’t have to go to the bank or wait in the mail for a sign of, “Okay, here’s what’s in your account.” It became much more intelligent over time. In its most sophisticated forms, it can even analyze the journey the customer is making in real-time.

Liam Geraghty: It’s like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.

“In the best versions of that, it can be a very solid experience. But in the worst versions, it feels like the game’s broken”

Ernie Smith: Choose your own adventure is a great way to put it. I’m just thinking about how, in many ways, dialing a call center is like playing an old tech space adventure game or a game like Missed, where you’re given a set of options, and you have to hit one. In the best versions of that, it can be a very solid experience. But in the worst versions, it feels like the game’s broken.

Liam Geraghty: Arguably, the biggest advance for the telephone was to cut the cord and go mobile. The technology development for that to happen started out quite early.

Cornelia Connolly: In 1946, Motorola had the first car radiotelephone service. But it was very limited, and it wasn’t available to the commercial market. It really wasn’t until the ’80s that car phones became popular.

Liam Geraghty: That’s Cornelia Connolly, a lecturer in the School of Education at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Cornelia Connolly: My background is in computer engineering and telecommunications. I studied that as part of my master’s.

Liam Geraghty: And you might be wondering… if we had mobile car phones in the ’40s, even with their limited capacity, what took so long for that tech to advance?

Cornelia Connolly: Bell Laboratories proposed cellular mobile technology to the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission in the US. But it wasn’t granted then – that was in 1947 – because of the influence of the television industry, which is really interesting.

“In the ’60s, Captain Kirk used a cordless communicator. And it was maybe 10 years later that we, the public, got to use mobile phones”

Liam Geraghty: The TV big wigs didn’t want any interference with or to share their allocation of frequency.

Cornelia Connolly: It wasn’t until 1970 that the FCC actually granted parts of the spectrum for mobile telephones. It’s interesting, too, because in the ’60s, for any Star Trek fans, Captain Kirk used a cordless communicator. And it was maybe 10 years later that we, the public, got to use mobile phones.

Vintage Newsreel: Right now, businessmen and women are major users of radiotelephones, where cellular is in service. But more people will take advantage of cellular as its benefits become apparent. Eventually, seeing people using cellular phones may seem as commonplace as someone checking the time on an electronic watch, figuring on an electronic calculator, or programming on an electronic computer.

Liam Geraghty: By the 1980s, there were around 1 million subscribers to mobile phones.

Cornelia Connolly: Now, there are up to 4 billion smartphone users.

Liam Geraghty: This brings us to Ernie’s fifth key technology that made phone-based customer support possible, the humble SMS.

Ernie Smith: This is the most recent of the primary phone-based technologies. It dates back to the ’90s. SMS started out as a broadcast technology for the customer support experience. In the case of political campaigns, if you’re trying to reach a broad audience and you have your list, you send out messages like, “Hey, support your candidate fundraising” and such. But that’s one of the areas that’s obviously gotten more sophisticated over time. Now you can have more direct one-to-one customer support conversations with people completely over text. It’s pretty cool.

Filling the void

Liam Geraghty: We certainly know all about helping customers via messaging here at Intercom. One thing we all associate with phone support that hasn’t seemed to have evolved a huge amount is the dreaded on-hold music. Ah, make it stop. One person, though, has upped on-hold music’s game.

Paul Shuler: Well, I’m so glad you reached out.

Liam Geraghty: Paul Shuler is a musician and an IT professional in the Seattle area of Washington State. A while back, a piece of music he created was hailed the greatest on-hold music in the world.

Paul Shuler: I was actually in phone support at that time. So yes, it’s been an interesting progression.

“Then I found, ‘Wow, I can really combine my love for music and recording and start to experiment with sound on a computer’”

Liam Geraghty: Early on, Paul got interested in music and uploading music to the internet archive.

Paul Shuler: I was doing this as a hobby at the time. I had started as a drummer in high school, playing in rock bands and punk bands. Then, I went to a vocational school and started to learn about electrical engineering and computers. This was 1997, 1998. I got a job right out of there in an electrical engineering facility. I started learning about computers and signal flow and got really interested in building my own computers. Then I found, “Wow, I can really combine my love for music and recording and start to experiment with sound on a computer.” It was a new thing at the time.

Liam Geraghty: After lots of what Paul calls sound experiments that turn into music, he grew more empowered to just record himself.

Paul Shuler: So that’s basically the concept that led me to record an electric piano called Wurlitzer 200A, which I had really been into. And that was basically the formation of this song that I created called “Simplicity”.

Liam Geraghty: At the time, one of the few places you could upload audio was the internet archive. So, that’s where he uploaded this track.

Paul Shuler: At the time, I was very non-attached to the technical elements of intellectual property. I didn’t even understand it. I just had the mechanism to publish audio for free and create it myself, and I was just doing that for fun.

“My brother contacted me several times. He was like, ‘Hey bro, I was on hold and I think I heard one of your songs’”

Liam Geraghty: So, people were just using your music for videos or projects and whatnot. When did you discover it had been used as on-hold music?

Paul Shuler: That’s such a funny question. My brother, I think, contacted me several times. He was like, “Hey bro, I was on hold and I think I heard one of your songs.”

Liam Geraghty: That song is called “Simplicity”. Just imagine you’re on hold. You’ve been waiting and waiting, but this track comes on. Seriously, how chill is this?

Paul Shuler: So he texted me about it, and then I started digging a little deeper. And lo and behold, I found out it was being used by an open-source software called Asterisk. They basically threw in a couple of my songs that they had got from the internet archive.

Liam Geraghty: Why do you think it works so well as on-hold music?

Paul Shuler: I think it’s because it’s repetitive. As I said, it’s a loop-based on the keyboard elements. And then, I’m just improvising on the drum set. And it’s not like I did a high-quality recording – it’s just one microphone placed over the drum set. I think it’s got an authentic and organic vibe to it. And people just realize, “Okay, this isn’t canned music, this isn’t something fake, it’s something that somebody actually created.”

Liam Geraghty: You used to work in tech support over the phone?

Paul Shuler: I did. So I’ve spent many an hour on hold listening to my on-hold music while trying to help someone.

Liam Geraghty: Were you ever tempted to tell them, “Hey, I made this music you’re listening to?”

Paul Shuler: No. Generally, they were already off, so I didn’t. I basically just tried to help them with their issue.

Enter Switch

Liam Geraghty: That brings us right up to now and to the latest innovation in phone support. It’s a new product from Intercom called Switch. And as the name implies, it allows customers to easily switch from phone support to messaging mid-call. Here’s senior product manager Tanner Elvidge.

Tanner Elvidge: To understand why we built Switch, we’ve got to go back to the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Because when the world shut down, support volumes went through the roof. Teams just couldn’t cope with the volume they were getting. And in the most extreme cases, they had to completely shut off their phone lines. This was a devastating decision for these teams because they work every day to try and create the best customer experience that they can, but because of the volume they were getting, it was really their only option. So we asked ourselves, how can we enable them to keep their phone lines on so that their customers can still speak to a person when they need to while enabling those teams to operate at this newfound internet scale, where suddenly you have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of customers trying to reach you? And that’s a trend that we’re seeing continuing well beyond the pandemic. That’s when Switch was born.

“You can wait on hold for 57 minutes or whatever it may be, or you could press two to switch to messaging right away”

Liam Geraghty: Honestly, when you see Switch in action, when you use it, it feels like magic.

Tanner Elvidge: Actually, it’s a very magical feeling. And I think it’s something we can all relate to. When you call whatever company, you hear the ring and it says, “You’re number 57 in the queue, wait time is an hour,” you’re like, “Oh man.” You’re stuck there on hold. Now, you’ll hear this option where you can wait on hold for 57 minutes or whatever it may be, or you could press two to switch to messaging right away. And if you press two at that point, you would immediately get a message that brings you into the messenger. You can just type your question or the problem you’re experiencing and go about your day, and the team will get back to you when they can. You’re not sitting on hold; you’re not holding your phone. You’ll just get a notification when the team responds, and you can get back to it whenever you need to.

Liam Geraghty: Aren’t you going to miss hold music, Tanner?

Tanner Elvidge: Maybe. Maybe the first five minutes. But you can only really sing along for so long.

Liam Geraghty: Switch is there to enable businesses to offer a good experience across multiple channels. And actually, a good way to look at how it does this is through the lens of support reps.

“If you zoom out and look at other trends and technological evolution, in some ways, the phone hasn’t kept pace”

Tanner Elvidge: If you’re a support rep, your job is to just answer customer questions. Day in and day out, try to resolve their issue and give them a great experience. Those questions could be coming in from the phone, chat, or email, whatever channels you’re operating. As a support rep, you can only really answer so many of those questions at a given time. So, if we think about the old world, where they’re answering the phone all day, every day, maybe they’re answering the same repetitive question 10, 20 times; Switch actually frees them up from answering those questions over and over again. Because those customers will be able to switch over to chat and get an answer automatically to resolve their questions. It frees the rep up to spend their time where they’re most valuable.

Liam Geraghty: What do you think the early inventors involved with the phone and phone support would make of its evolution?

Tanner Elvidge: Honestly, I think they would be shocked at how little it’s changed. Part of me hopes that would be a really humbling experience. Because it’s like, “Wow, we made this technology that’s still being used, and it’s still at the center of human communication and the customer support industry.” But at the same time, if you zoom out and look at other trends and technological evolution, in some ways, the phone hasn’t kept pace. A parallel I like to draw is when you think about personal computing. That’s an industry that’s been around a lot less than the phone but has seen a lot more change, particularly when we think about the ways we compute. Back in the early days, it was desktop. And then we introduced laptops. But desktops didn’t go away, and we still use desktops for some things, laptops for others.

“Messaging is the predominant way that we communicate in our personal lives today, but we still pick up the phone and ring a business as we used to 50, 80, 100 years ago”

Fast forward to today where we have mobile phones and tablets and wearables, and soon, maybe, we’ll have AR goggles or whatever. Desktop hasn’t died, but it’s become a lot more specialized. So now, desktops are doing the things that desktops are uniquely good at, which is compute power – things like big data processing or gaming. But we spend most of our time on our mobile devices or laptops.

If we think of the phone as the desktop equivalent, the phone is the OG communication channel out there. It really hasn’t evolved in that same way. The phone was introduced, then email, and now messaging. Messaging is the predominant way that we communicate in our personal lives today, but we still pick up the phone and ring a business as we used to 50, 80, 100 years ago. I think that’s surprising. And I think when we project that out, what we see in the future of the phone is that it becomes a bit more specialized, just like the desktop did. I think we’ll see the phone being introduced in more of the situations where it’s needed and become less of the default option. We’re hoping Switch accelerates some of that change.

Liam Geraghty: Awesome. Thanks, Tanner.

Tanner Elvidge: Cool. Thanks, Liam, I appreciate it.

The wait time from hell

Liam Geraghty: Stay with us. In just a moment, Tanner is going to reveal his worst customer phone support moment. But first, my thanks to Ernie Smith. His internet history newsletter is called Tedium: The Dull Side of the Internet, but believe me, it is anything but. You’ll find that at tedium.co.

Also, thanks to lecturer Cornelia Connolly. You’ll find her on Twitter @CorneliaThinks. If that chill on-hold music is still in your brain, you can check out more of Paul Shuler’s great music at his site, macroformmusic.com.

And of course, if you want to find out more about Switch and what it can do to transform your customer support team, check out intercom.com/switch. Finally, thanks to Intercom senior product manager Tanner Elvidge, who shared a recent phone support horror story with me.

“I carved out some time on a Sunday just to call them. And three hours into hold time, the call dropped”

Tanner Elvidge: I actually had a flight book to go home and visit some family over the holidays. Travel is still not back up to speed – there are still tons of disruptions and changes happening all the time. I got this cryptic email from them that said, “Hey, your itinerary has been changed, give us a call to fix it.” I was like, “Oh man.” So I called. And the wait time was three hours and 45 minutes. I hung up. I was like, “No way.” There’s got to be a way to resolve this on the website or in their app. I’m intentionally not naming names here, by the way. But eventually, I was like, “Okay, there’s no other way to do this.” So I carved out some time on a Sunday just to call them. And three hours into hold time, the call dropped.

Liam Geraghty: Oh no.

Tanner Elvidge: It was brutal. So I ended up just being like, “You know what, I’m just going to show up to the airport early and do it in person because that’s the only way I’m going to get through,” which was a gamble. And it was stressful. On top of all of the travel that I had to do, it was like, “Okay, great. Now I have to figure out if I even have the itinerary that I need.”

Liam Geraghty: A cautionary tale of the need for Switch, if ever there was one. That’s it for this week. Thanks for listening.

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