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These start-ups let you skip customer service woes

Man on mobile phone
Brendon Thorne | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Want 17 hours of your life back? Consider outsourcing some of your customer-service woes.

A growing number of companies is offering to shoulder the burden of bill negotiations, fee waivers and other customer service problems — for a price.

GetHuman.com, known for revealing company phone tree shortcuts, started a resolution service Wednesday, charging $5 to $25 per case depending on the company. The higher rates are reserved for "the companies where we already know there's a two-hour wait time and a complex process ahead," co-founder and chief executive Christian Allen said.

"For the most part, people coming to us have really reasonable problems," said Allen, such as erroneous cable bill charges and airline refunds. "From our perspective it's an easy case to fight."

Start-up Trim charges $6 to handle hard-to-cancel subscriptions (most subscriptions they will handle free of charge), while negotiation firms including BillFixers, BillCutterz and JustOnePay take a cut of savings secured for you in the course of reducing regular monthly bills such as those for cellphone service and cable.

"Everybody who has a monthly bill is overpaying on a monthly bill," said Barry Gross, president and founder of BillCutterz. Savings average 25 percent to 35 percent. "Our incentive is to save our customer as much as possible," he said.

There's an undeniable appeal to having someone else do the dirty work of navigating phone trees, listening to hold music and pleading your case. Americans will waste an estimated 900 hours on hold for customer service this year, according to a February report from advertising analytics firm Marchex. In a 2013 poll from text-messaging app TalkTo (since acquired by Path), 53 percent of consumers reported spending 10 minutes to 20 minutes on hold each week.

That works out to somewhere in the range of eight to 17 hours on hold each year, plus however much time you spend actually talking to customer service reps. At an average hourly wage of $25.43, that's $432 down the drain — making a few bucks to outsource seem like a real bargain.

Pick and choose what issues you hire out. Some problems are more easily resolved than others.

For example, a recent CreditCards.com survey found 89 percent of cardholders were able to get a late fee waived. Nearly 80 percent successfully lowered their interest rate.

Top 500 retailers have been beefing up service teams in recent years, making it easier for consumers to reach someone quickly, said Kevon Hills, vice president of research for customer service analytics firm StellaService. Reps may have more power to offer a resolution, too. "For those types of companies I don't see issues getting so out of hand that you need someone to go out on your behalf and handle them for you," he said.

Consider, too, if you have other avenues for resolution. A service or purchase charged to your credit card, for example, might be disputed through your issuer. Some providers also offer extra return protections if there's an issue, said Hills.

If you opt to hire someone, discuss up front about what resolutions are acceptable and what the middleman can agree to on your behalf. BillCutterz, for example, won't sign you up for a new contract or any deal requiring strings without your prior authorization, Gross said.

"We try to ask you ahead of time, 'Would you be OK with this? Would you be OK with that?'" said Allen. GetHuman reps will call for your consent if the target company offers an unexpected solution.

It's also important to consider the process. Some companies ask to pose as you; others introduce themselves as your representatives. The former requires handling over personal information (say, the last four digits of your Social Security number); for the latter, you may have more of a time commitment (confirming your identity and that of your middleman in calls to the company).

Although resolution services have some advantages with knowing whom to call and what to say, a quick resolution is no guarantee. In beta tests, GetHuman's reps were able to achieve resolutions in time frames as short as 10 minutes and as long as six weeks, said Allen. If there's a long queue to speak to an airline rep, they'll be on hold the same as any other customer.

"We're still subject to the same slowdowns as you are," he said.