There is very likely a small percentage of the population that loves Muzak. I mean, there must be, or there wouldn’t be a channel for it on Sirius. But let’s say, for the sake of this article, that you’re not part of that group. Let’s assume, instead, that you really dislike being on hold listening to instrumental versions of your favorite songs or fumbling through the “dial 1 for…” audio prompts that you get when you try to call a company.

And let’s also assume that you’re calling said company for a specific reason and not just to prank them. (We did get a great prank call at the office recently about a parrot using foul language. But that’s a different story.)

It’s a conundrum, really. According to research done a few years ago, people waste 60 million hours a year on hold. Yet if you have a reason to contact a company, you often have little choice. So with our two assumptions– you don’t like being on hold and you’re calling a company with a specific purpose– let’s make a third: there must be a better way to spend your time. As it turns out, there is, thanks to a few services have popped up to alleviate this thankless task.

The grandaddy of them all is probably Get Human. This company began in 2005 and was originally a web-based database of customer service information and phone numbers for companies. For each company in the database, the service tracked the various customer service phone numbers and specific codes used by their audio prompts. The name was derived from the shortcuts provided to help you cut through the phone tree to talk to a real person. Over time, it’s grown from a pet project into a company sustained by the businesses who pay to be a part of the directory and now offers a web version, mobile apps for smartphones, and a call-back service. For the end-users (think you and me) all of these options are completely free.

The call-back service is a great alternative, and happens to be where a a Get Human competitor has placed its bets. FastCustomer has an iPhone app, a browser extension, and a text option built around freeing you from the phone tree for good. The idea is simple and the app is nearly perfect: find the name of the company you want to call and click the “have someone call me” button. Then, while you’re doing something else, the application calls the company, navigates the phone tree, and finally gets a person on the line. When it does, your phone rings. While waiting for the app to get someone on the phone, you’re prompted to tell FastCustomer (by tapping little face icons) your mood. They also follow up the call by asking again. Using this information, they are able to relate the success of the experience back to the businesses with recommendations to improve their customer service.

The browser extension is also nice touch. Once installed, it lights up when you arrive on a web site that is listed in their database and has a call center that is open. If you want to talk with someone, just click the button to get connected. Just like the app, once someone picks up, the service calls you on your phone.

Or you can simply text the information to FastCustomer. Just send them a text message with the name of the company you want to talk with and wait for your phone to ring. If you have a new iPhone 4S with Siri, you can create a contact for FastCustomer and then let Siri do the rest. Just say, “Text [company name] to FastCustomer.”

Lucy works in (mostly) the same way . You can use either their web site or their app (they also have a version for the Android), or just text the name of the company you want to call to them. In the case of Lucy, the service will call you first and then connect with the company. If you get put on hold, you enter ** and hang up. Lucy calls you back when a person gets on the line.

While all of these apps do everything advertised and are completely free, I prefer FastCustomer. Since it’s primarily built around the call-back feature, the application is pared down to the essentials and is drop-dead simple to use. If you opt for the web interface instead, it also offers a easy menu of phone numbers listed for each company and an instant call option.

Just think: 60 million hours wasted on hold. Imagine the productivity gains we could realize if just a marginal percentage of us switched to one of these time-saving services…On the other hand, it seems likely those hours would simply be transferred to Facebook or Twitter. But still, that’s got to be better than listening to the panflute version Stairway to Heaven.

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