Customer service at this USDA hotline is undercooked

We get mixed results when dialing into the federal and the commercial turkey-cooking hotlines.

What comes to mind when you hear, “Environmental Protection Agency?” Air and water pollution? Dangerous chemicals? Earth Day? Richard Nixon? Bed bugs?

Probably not bed bugs. But the EPA has a bed bug expert, one Dr. Marcia Anderson, who last June wrote this knowledgeable and lively blog post about how to eradicate bed bugs from your home. Anderson works within EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, from which she also produces webinars about pest control.

If you should be unfortunate enough to experience an infestation of bed bugs, this bit of information  would help. It’s a nicely human way of distributing authoritative, vetted information.

And what an interesting-sounding person! I’ve never met Dr. Anderson, but in looking for something else at my eye caught one of the topics on its home page — bed bugs.

Never having had the pleasure of a bed bug infestation in my own home, I’ll add that to my list of things to be thankful for tomorrow. Between the collapse of cryptocurrency to the stock market, it takes some imagination to be optimistic.

The government is a challenging environment. In 30 years of covering it, I sometimes wonder how it ever gets anything done. But it does, and that’s because of the people working in it. That’s the appeal of Thanksgiving. Not the turkey, the people.

Bed bugs present a professional concern for Dr. Anderson. Rescuing people from a frigid, turbulent river was personal for TSA Officer Gavin Gard. A story at the Transportation Security Administration site details how an off-duty Gard rescued his girlfriend’s grandparents and an unrelated child, for whom a day of tubing in a Boise, Idaho river got out of control.

The story is a product of TSA’s public affairs operation. It maintains a section of the agency web site just for stories about TSA people. TSA wants to make them real to the public, not just uniforms you endure at the airport. The agency, though, also has extensive customer experience in the support it provides for people before flying, everything you need to know about what you can and cannot carry on a plane.

The Department of Agriculture has lots of resources for its specialty of food safety. At Thanksgiving it focuses, of course, on turkey.

An example of humanizing this information: Kenneth King, a public affairs officer at USDA. His timely blog deals with myths about Thanksgiving turkey handling.

And always, we should thank the people manning the Agriculture Department’s Thanksgiving hotline — 888-674-6854 — for how to cook a turkey such that your guests don’t all get gastrointestinal emergencies. I wonder if USDA ever did an A-76 competition for a turkey hotline, or if we can assume that’s an inherently governmental function. A mass producer of frozen turkeys also operates a hotline.

So how is the turkey hotline customer experience?

Web editor Robert O’Shaughnessy and I each called both hotlines, the USDA’s and that of Butterball LLC, and compared notes. Both organizations have decades of experience operating Thanksgiving turkey-cooking hotlines.

Sad to say, the nod for customer experience must go to Butterball.

We asked — or hoped to ask — both call centers three questions: Where to stick in the thermometer to test for 180 degrees, whether to cover the drumsticks with foil, and whether the hotline would be open on Thanksgiving in case we had last-minute questions.

Both numbers had long queues the day before Thanksgiving. One Butterball glitch was because of an embedded link, both of us, when we dialed the 800 number on the web site, reached the Trane air conditioning company. They apparently expect people to tap the number from a mobile device, not actually dial a phone. We did figure out the correct Butterball number, though.

At Butterball, it took about 10 minutes for me to reach a person, Robert about 6. Throughout the ersatz Christmas season wait music, Butterball provided the option to leave a call-back number so you could hang up and not lose your place in the queue. The voice also gave tips on turkey handling and cooking throughout. As every call center now does, it directed people to online information. You can also text your question to Butterball to get an answer that way. Definitely omni-channel, as they say in the CX world.

When a gentleman picked up, I told him I had really waited to talk to a person. He joked, “I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re talking to.” I told him he didn’t sound like a turkey. He seemed enthusiastic and knowledgeable. He gave me detailed advice for where to cut the skin and take temperature. He told me not to cover the drumsticks with foil, lest the collagen fail to break down. Robert’s Butterball person said to tent the drumsticks two thirds of the way through the roasting cycle. I guess broken-down collegen but not burnt skin. Robert’s person said to preheat the oven, and brush the bird with vegetable oil.

Neither Robert nor I ever did reach a person at USDA. There’s no callback or text option. When you dial, you reach the general food safety line at USDA, and must listen to a menu. No specific reference to Thanksgiving turkeys, but if you call it’s option #3.

The “agents busy” message repeats every few seconds, and at somewhat before the promised 15 minutes wait, the call automatically goes to voice message. Since our objective was to reach a person, we didn’t pursue it further.

USDA’s web site has all the information you need to safely prepare, cook and serve a turkey. In truth, the telephone hotline for something like this is a dated concept. Well, yes and no. People like to talk to people. So if there’s to be a telephone hotline, USDA’s, er, turkey needs a little more roasting.


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