Customers Prefer Agents to Automation

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When calling businesses for service, customers want to speak with friendly, articulate, and helpful live agents who work directly for the companies involved rather than to automated systems or outsourced answering services, finds research from Clutch, a B2B ratings and reviews organization. The findings were based on a survey of 468 U.S. consumers who recently called businesses. 

“Voice services in general—call services, answering services, call centers, and virtual receptionists—have been commonly used in the business world for 20 years or more,” explains Elizabeth Ballou, Clutch’s content developer and the report’s author. “Whether they were speaking with a human representative or with some kind of robotic representative…customers said their top priority was an ability to speak with a person, which indicates to us that customers want a live representative above all other things that a call could offer, and they’re not going to be satisfied by anything else.” 

In fact, when calls are answered by automated systems, 25 percent of callers want the option to be transferred to a human. Customers want to feel as though their concerns are being addressed by an actual person who can be held accountable for answering them, according to Ballou. 

To further demonstrate this point, Clutch also noted that when callers are forwarded to voicemail, 80 percent don’t even bother to leave a message. Frustration is also high when callers have to cycle through a slew of automated menu options. 

Customers have different expectations when talking to live agents versus automated systems. When dealing with live customer service representatives, a sense of human interaction, friendliness, clarity, fast service, a decisive outcome, and company knowledge were the most commonly sought traits. In addition to the ability to transfer to a live person, other desired traits in an automated interaction include the system’s ability to understand voice inputs, fast service, good sound quality, useful information, and a decisive outcome.

Negative perceptions of outsourced call centers are also common, the research says. “We asked people if they had been entirely helped after they finished a call, and people who thought they were speaking to an outside call center reported much lower rates of getting the help they needed compared to the people who thought they were speaking straight to the business they’d originally called,” Ballou says. 

She posits that there are two ways to interpret the finding. One is that when people think they’re talking to a call center, they automatically have lower expectations based on stereotypes about call centers. The second is to assume that outside call centers generally don’t provide good service and employees can’t provide the information and help they need to.

Customers typically were less satisfied with interactions they thought were being handled via outsourced call centers. In fact, less than half (44 percent) of respondents who thought they spoke to these types of call centers had completely satisfying calls, meaning that answering services should be careful about how they’re perceived. If callers experience transfers, low-quality audio, or representatives who speak sub-par English and draw from scripts, they are likely to assume that they’re speaking with a voice services provider. The negative stereotypes are that these representatives lack the specialized skills to answer complex questions, don’t speak fluent English, speak with heavy accents, and have few social graces.

However, if representatives speak conversationally and resolve callers’ problems without transferring them, callers have no reason to believe they’re talking to an employee of a voice services company.

Ballou recommends that companies set their priorities in alignment with customer expectations and make sure they have enough people to answer phone calls. Business owners considering outsourced call center services would be wise to conduct trial runs. They can begin by simply calling the contact center to see whether the people who answer the phones are polite and conversational. These employees should “sound like they really care, want to help you, and can answer your questions,” Ballou says. “That’s the most important part.” 

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