The fingers you have used to dial are too fat

To obtain a special dialing wand, please mash the keypad with your palm now.” So goes an automated response from King-Size Homer, a The Simpsons episode (which coincidentally will be on CFMT at 10 PM EST on Wednesday, according to the Torontoist).

New York Times’ Alina Tugend takes a look at the state of phone trees in America and the (lack of) support a customer can receive when wading through the myriad of choices presented.

A little history: These interactive voice response systems, known as I.V.R., which recognize speech or touch tones, began in earnest in the 1980s, and the idea was that they would cut costs by reducing the number of people a company needed to respond to customer complaints.

The trouble is, companies were more interested in saving money than customer retention.

Since then it seems the trees have branched off (if you’ll excuse the pun) in an overwhelming number of directions. It seems companies (especially the ones I’ve required help from) don’t understand that calling for support is usually a last resort (at least for me). If I have to call them, I’m already pretty frustrated and I would like to ask for help right away rather than having to listen to Emily.

“I’ve listened to thousands of people interacting with machines,” Mr. Rolandi [who is founder of the Voice User Interface Company which designs interactive voice response systems for companies] said. “You hear sighs of resignation. You hear people swear. If businesses knew what I knew, they would not design them this way. Many people do not take into account the emotional state of the customer. When you call someone for customer service, you’ve got a problem and you’re probably in a bad mood. You hear someone telling you your call is so important that we won’t let you talk to a human. Then they slap people with too many options, and eventually, you’re in a fight with the system. When you do get a customer representative, you’re loaded for bear.” [emphasis is mine]

Rolandi goes on to liken the usefulness of an automated system to a bank machine’s, “who would rather wait in a bank line than use an A.T.M.?”

The good news seems to be that more companies are acknowledging something taught in first year business: It’s easier to keep a customer than to get a new one.

The article makes for a good read and you can find it on the NY Times website. It also provides links to a couple of sites which host tricks on how to get around an automated system. Definitely a resource to keep in mind the next time a robot asks you to listen the following 10 options.

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