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How Companies Make Millions Off of a Few Seconds of Your Time Each Day

Verizon, AT&T and Sprint are facing heat for handing over their customers’ call records to the government. But it isn’t the only way that these phone companies are frustrating their customers – they also waste time and money by extending their prerecorded voicemail instructions.

It might not seem like a significant problem but the seconds add up when 91 percent of Americans have cell phones and many have payment plans that charge by the minute. The latest victory for customers was four years ago, when the Take Back the Beep Campaign managed to shorten AT&T’s recording by 7 seconds, from 15 to 8. It eliminated the antiquated instructions on how to send a fax or a page.

“[It saved customers] $374 million a year,” says David Pogue, the New York Times technology columnist and founder of the Take Back the Beep Campaign, who spoke to me over the phone. Pogue did his own research in 2009 to determine the cost-benefit of truncating unnecessary voicemail instructions. Those 7 seconds, he says, save every American an hour and 37 minutes each year.

In a blog post from July 2009, Pogue directed readers to the biggest company’s complaint pages – Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile – encouraging them to send messages asking for the recording to be dropped. Thousands of people sent in complaints.

T-Mobile “responded by far the best,” Pogue says, by completely eliminating the recording.

Sprint had and still has the option of turning off the recording, although it’s buried deep within their command menu. “Even though I object to how buried it is,” Pogue says, “it’s still there and possible and that’s great.”

Verizon, finally, is the least admirable, Pogue says. It refused to eliminate any part of the recording, which costs their customers about $760 million a year, according to Pogue’s numbers.

“Verizon Wireless has this instructional message in place to ensure that callers who are not familiar with our voice mail system leave a message correctly,” the company wrote back to customers who complained.

But Pogue doesn't buy it. “Everybody knows how to leave a message,” he says. “The very concept of holding us hostage, the arrogance of these companies – I mean why would they do it? It costs a company money every time you’re on a call. So why isn’t it in their interest to eliminate this redundant 15 seconds times 280 million Americans?

“Well the answer is simple,” he says. “It’s still profitable for them. They’re still charging us” that extra time.

The victories from 2009 are a move in the right direction, says Pogue. But they aren’t enough. This is an expensive problem with an easy fix, he says. There’s no excuse.

So be on the lookout for a Taking Back the Beep Campaign 2013 edition. It might come soon. And when it does, Pogue is hoping for another flood of complaints that could fix the problem for good.