The problem with automated phone systems is, companies neglect the various environments of a typical user experience.
Posted May 1, 2006
In an episode of Angel, the defunct TV series about a supernatural detective, the eponymous hero becomes lost in the maze of an evil law firm's customer self-service phone system. While trying to navigate the phone tree, Angel hears this message: "You have reached Ritual Sacrifice. For goats, press 1, or say goats." After some more phone-key tangoing, the automated attendant program spits out, "To sacrifice a loved one or pet, press the pound key."
Funny, yes, but only because we can all recognize the kernel of truth underlying this bizarre scene. Customer self-service applications, designed to actually help customers solve their own problems while increasing enterprise efficiencies, often--maybe even usually--get in the way of achieving those goals. Why? The technology is not to blame. The real culprit is strong technology coupled with a lack of basic common sense applied to the user experience.
Here's an anecdotal, real-world (the mystical can only take you so far) example of what I am talking about. My business flight on one of the major U.S. airlines was cancelled recently. Instead of joining the unruly throng at the customer support service (CSS) counter, I called a special frequent-flyer phone number on my cell phone in an attempt to get an agent to reschedule my flight.
At this point one might see how this story could devolve into a rant about airline service, or the lack thereof, but the problem was not the airline's unresponsiveness. Rather, it was the lack of forethought about how customers, and potential customers, would use the CSS day in and day out. When I dialed into the automated attendant system, the IVR system asked me to respond verbally to its prompts.
Unfortunately, the airport loudspeaker was constantly squawking on about unattended baggage and gate changes. This constant stream of noise threw the IVR system into a tizzy. At its best the system gave me, "I'm sorry, I didn't understand that," and asked me to repeat my input. At its worst the system believed that it had understood the phantom input and sent me down the more obscure reaches of the IVR decision tree (thankfully, no goat sacrifices were in progress in the dark recesses of the airline's customer support department). Since the announcements at an airport are even beamed into the rest rooms, there was absolutely no way to escape the noise. Eventually, I figured out that if I covered my cell phone's microphone with my finger and made educated guesses at the keypad strokes required, I could navigate my way into a queue to speak to a customer service representative.
Why am I making a big deal about this? (After all, I did eventually get the service I needed, once I was able to follow the system's instructions--the technology delivered the results I wanted.) Because my user experience crashed and burned. The airline's support-process designers did not consider some of the most common uses of their system--distressed customers frequently call in for service from the airport, but also from other noisy environments such as taxis and hotels. To successfully design customer service processes, customer support managers must put the system through its paces in all of the frequently occurring situations. So, a phone-based support system for field service technicians needs to take input different from a system designed to give mortgage account balances to consumers who tend to call in from a quiet home or office.
Technology vendors--the manufacturers of the IVR, CRM, and contact center systems--all have user-
experience engineers on staff. It is high time that the companies implementing such technologies in hopes of providing superior customer support follow suit. Someone has to be on point in applying common sense to keep customers out of IVR hell.
Ian Jacobs is a strategic analyst at Frost & Sullivan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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