Automated phone systems and surveys

Customer service units of large companies seem almost universally to operate on the assumption that they can handle a large number of customer inquiries (and pay fewer employees) through Automated Call Distribution and Interactive Voice Response systems.  While the dollars and cents may make sense, I’m not sure how much sense it makes to use the systems.  Customer frustrations can run high while on hold, and the options available rarely if ever include the one I, for one, am looking for.

In an earlier life, I was forced on a few occasions to sit in an “agent” seat using predictive dialing software for a bank, and I quickly came to view such software as a public nuisance.  (Civil penalties ought to be increased fourfold when it’s a telemarketing enterprise.)  This societal problem was eventually mitigated somewhat by regulations, but it’s still a problem—and especially for those who maintain landlines.  In the above case, I found that it was pretty silly to have just four or five people “dialing” at a time; when the numbers are low and/or the ratios are improper, there will be more calls dropped than connected.  Incoming call centers are not as bad as their outbound cousins, but those who perpetrate or operate any call systems ought at least to be aware of the numbers of agents needed to use the systems effectively.

Now matter how well thought out the call-routing decision tree is, on the customer side, almost invariably, an experience with an automated phone system goes something like this for me:

  • I listen to options, tune out because it sounds the same as every other phone menu, including the omnipresent “please listen carefully, because our menu options have recently changed.”
  • I choose the option to replay the whole thing.
  • At some point, realizing there is no option that relates to the reason for my call, I choose 0 (or 0-0, or ***, or some other punctuational gibberish that feels like cartoon cursing).
  • I am placed on hold because, of course, I have called during a time in which all available agents are busier than normal.  (Do they ever staff the phone lines according to need, or are they always intentionally understaffed to save on wages?)
  • The convenient on-hold message is played every 60 seconds, telling me I should go to the website.  I ignore that because I already tried it, and it didn’t provide the answer I needed.
  • Sometimes I have to start the call all over again first.  Finally I connect to a real voice, but the agent transfers me, and I must revert to the original recorded message and go through the above steps again.

If it is a non-native English speaker I eventually reach, my odds of getting the needed info are about 50-50, and if it’s an English speaker, about 90%.  And I wonder how much money was spent on the hardware and software to support the system whose sole purpose, in effect, has been to occupy me until one of the humans becomes available.  All these companies should quit viewing conversations with humans as “escalations” to be avoided.  I like quickly handling things with a few clicks and keystrokes on a web page as much as the next guy, and it’s a treat when you can get your business done on a website.  When I call on the phone, though, don’t give me canned responses.  Perhaps more companies who feel the need to outsource should use outfits like Hastings Humans, with a 70-year history and representatives all located in Austin, Texas.

I rarely take the time to complete digital surveys of any type, feeling that they are likely created mostly in order to allow customer service vice presidents to report to executive vice presidents and corporate boards that their departments are actually doing something to improve customer service.  (Maybe a secondary purpose is to give jobs to survey-creation people.)  The corporate resources  expended on automated phone systems would be better utilized actually doing customer service (and hiring native speakers who can speak intelligibly and understand what customers ask and say).

Here is a snippet from a texted customer survey I did complete recently:

Survey question:  How easy was it to get the help you wanted using our automated phone service on a scale of 0 (very difficult) to ’10 (very easy)?

Response:  1

Survey question:  Did you manage to achieve what you set out to using our automated phone service on a scale of 0 (not at all) to ’10 (completely)?

Response:  0

Survey question:  How satisfied are you with the way our automated phone service is organized on a scale of 0 (very dissatisfied) to 10 (very satisfied)?

Response: 2
Comment:  Never ever is an automated phone service sufficient for real people and real questions.  Your personnel are good, but automated service never will be.

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