Imagine if calling customer service could be painless
By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent

At the end of a long workday, I got Steve Kraus on the horn with the intention of having the worst customer service conversation ever.

I vented. Kraus interrupted me. I raised my voice. Kraus talked way too much. I got sarcastic. There were stretches of silence, during which I wondered whether Kraus had hung up.

It was a chance to see how software made by Kraus’s employer, Boston-based Cogito, tries to keep this kind of customer service interaction from going downhill fast. The software analyzes the tone and pace of speakers and who’s speaking when. Cogito is one of several local companies attempting to make calls to the dreaded 800 number less frustrating, or enable you to avoid them altogether.

Cogito was founded 10 years ago, initially to help nurses talking to patients over the phone to detect signs of depression or psychological distress. “It was rewarding but not a big market,’’ founder and chief executive Joshua Feast says. After expanding its focus to include corporate call centers, Cogito was able to raise outside funding, to the tune of about $22 million.

“A conversation is like a dance,’’ Feast says. “You can be in synch and out of synch. The system we built measures how well the conversation is going. Because we do that, we can get participants to adjust the way that they’re speaking to come across as more professional, compassionate, and empathic.’’ A big problem of working in a call center, he notes, is burn-out from dealing with frazzled callers all day. Feast says his software supplies real-time feedback to help the representatives who answer phones “maintain their best persona.’’

As I was talking with Kraus, Cogito’s vice president of marketing, alerts were popping up on his screen to indicate that he was straying from that ideal persona. One told him that there were “frequent overlaps,’’ suggesting too many interruptions. Another nudged him that he was “speaking too much’’ and not listening to my issues. But even though I tried mightily to express major irritation, for some reason we didn’t trigger the “empathy cue’’ alert, which suggests the rep say something empathetic, like, “I completely understand why you’d be frustrated.’’

Throughout the call, Kraus could see a score of how he was doing on the call, from 0 to 10. In a real-world situation, his boss would also see that data. That’s important as a way for the people who manage call centers to spot those who might, er, need a little more training. “Our customers have 10,000 to 40,000 representatives, typically,’’ Feast says. “That creates a huge people challenge since a manager might only listen to two or three calls a month for each agent.’’

For all the hype about artificial intelligence replacing human workers, Feast argues that “AI is primarily going to turn to augmenting humans,’’ working with them to, in this case, deliver better customer service.

Interactions Corp., based in Franklin, is trying to forge a similar partnership between smart software and people. When you dial Hyatt Hotels’ main reservation line, for example, it is Interactions’ software that asks what city you’re traveling to and when you’re going. The answers are passed along to a human agent who can focus on making sure you have the type of room you want and the ancillary services like spa visits or restaurant reservations. Interactions also has a feature that allows you to use your “voiceprint’’ as a password so you don’t have to play the game of password roulette.

A big part of what corporate call centers are trying to achieve, Interactions chief executive Mike Iacobucci says, is to ensure that when you start a conversation via online chat, perhaps with a virtual assistant or “chatbot,’’ it can be passed along to a human who can ring you up on the phone.

Interactions has about 400 employees and last August raised $56 million from a group of investors, including Comcast Ventures. (Comcast, Iacobucci notes, isn’t yet a customer.)

At Nuance — an even bigger player in the market for call center technology — the long-term vision is that customer service problems won’t only be solved by pressing a phone to your ear. “If you have a new Comcast cable box,’’ says Robert Weideman, general manager of Nuance’s enterprise division, “you can talk to it and ask for a specific show. Why can’t you also say, ‘I see a strange charge on my bill’ and talk to a virtual assistant on the screen about the problem? The virtual assistant can hand you over to a person if you need more help, and all of a sudden, you’ll see a video of a contact center agent who says, ‘Hi Robert, how can I help you?’ ’’

Other devices, like Internet-connected speakers made by ­Amazon and Google, ought to be able to answer questions and connect you with live people, Weideman suggests. “Today, I’m in the same room with all this technology, and I have to pick up my phone and dial you. That’s dumb.’’

Boston-based GetHuman started life a decade ago with a simple mission: Whenever you needed to pick up a phone to call an airline, utility, or credit card company, its website offered the precise sequence of keystrokes you needed to punch to reach a live person.

More recently, it began offering what you might call a concierge service that seeks to eliminate ­customer service headaches. For $30, a human who works for ­GetHuman will do the calling for you. Just send them your name and account number — yes, sensitive stuff — via a secure webchat.

On Tuesday, I hired GetHuman to take over my most vexing customer service challenge: scheduling a safety inspection with National Grid, which supplies gas to my home. It can’t be done online, and the call center is only open on weekdays. When I’ve called in the past, I’ve been told that there were no available appointments and that I needed to call back.

After I entered my credit card and paid $30, GetHuman’s intelligent software agent, G., took some of my information and then passed it along to a human named Ed. Ed made a call on my behalf and got the same answer: “Yes, we have no appointments.’’ Ed told me he’d try calling again Wednesday. He didn’t, but when I asked him Thursday, he got back on the case and made me an appointment for later in April.

It felt good to offload my customer service problem on someone else. But the message I got when I called National Grid’s public relations department for a comment could’ve used a dollop of empathy — or reality? — courtesy of Cogito’s intelligent software. “You can call our customer service number and will be offered a date immediately,’’ spokeswoman Amie O’Hearn wrote via e-mail.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.