• March 1, 2007
  • By Ian Jacobs, vice president and research director, Forrester Research

Gethuman? Get Real.

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A consumer calls a toll-free number for support with a product or to check on an order and is first required to enter her account information into an automated system, and then required to repeat the exact information when she gets--eventually--to speak with a live agent. Or she's placed in a seemingly never-ending queue, with no indication from the company whether she will get to speak to an agent before the next presidential election. We've all had experiences like these and the shoddy treatment meted out to consumers has caused something of a backlash against the automated customer self-service systems. The biggest target for consumer hostility: interactive voice response (IVR) systems. One of the most visible manifestations of consumer dissatisfaction was the overwhelmingly positive public reaction to Paul English's IVR Cheat Sheet, a document designed to give consumers the knowledge to circumvent companies' IVRs. In the past year, however, consumer efforts to thwart the propagation of IVRs, and the attendant feeling of a rise in poor-quality interactions, have become significantly more elaborate. Partially based on the organization built up around the IVR Cheat Sheet, a new project, called gethuman and with a Web site at www.gethuman.com, was born. Its stated mission is to work "to improve the quality of phone support in the U.S." Many of gethuman's tactics are admirable and actually help consumers obtain the best level of service from the companies they deal with daily--the updated and expanded database of IVR tips now includes a grade of interaction quality, as well as the methods for reaching a live support agent for at least 500 companies. These methods range from the very simple ("Press 0" or "Don't press or say anything") to more complex methods that would be difficult to just stumble upon. Additionally, the Web site includes a list of basic tips that gives consumers a solid foundation in how to approach an automated customer support tool, and contains numerous forums for consumers to trade stories and advice. But gethuman has also begun an ambitious project to actually transform the mechanisms that companies use to provide service. This project takes the form of a proposed standard, "a specification for how customer service phone systems and support should work." This standard is troubling for anyone closely involved in providing customer service through a phone system. Gethuman gets it wrong with its very first core principle, which the organization sums up this way: "Humans first--in cases where a human is available, a human should quickly answer the call and determine the caller's need." While this egalitarian vision might sound sensible from a consumer's perspective, companies must be able to prioritize service: The most valuable customers should receive first crack at a knowledgeable live agent; less valuable customers should wait--in other words, stratify customers and provide varying levels of service to them based on their differences. In fact, companies should keep some agent availability in reserve, even if this means that less valuable customers must wait longer or deal with an IVR, due to the possibility that the most valuable customers will call in. If companies treat every customer equally, customers are actually the ones who suffer in the long run. Companies that do not treat their preeminent customers better than the workaday customers will soon lose those more profitable customers, and that would be the start of a downward trend. Fewer high-value customers means less money available for support services across the board, and fewer agents to provide service to anyone. In the same way that networks differentiate between the importance of packets to provide smoother flow for all, companies must supply different support paths for different types of customers--for the good of all customers. Ian Jacobs is a strategic analyst at Frost & Sullivan. He can be reached at ian.jacobs@frost.com.
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