woman connected to computers

People Don’t Mind Talking to Computers, Really

Peter Theis, ‘father of the automated switchboard’ and Public Enemy Number 1 for everyone who dislikes automated phone systems, talking with the LA Times:

I’m the guy who did it, yeah. I am ultimately to blame. I’m Dr. Frankenstein…When I invented it, I knew this would be huge. My goal was to improve the efficiency of call centers. I never thought that people would misapply the technology.

That, in a nutshell, is why people don’t like talking to computers: because organizations don’t use automated voice systems correctly. Which is a shame, because evidence suggests that most people are fine talking with computers, as long as the systems are efficient and helpful.

Reasons to Dislike

From a study in the Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society:

Thousands of applications—from airline reservations to zoo schedules—use phone-based interfaces to provide information to callers and to request input. The dramatic increase in the number of these applications has led to wide variability in the quality of the interface design [i.e., how an organization uses the technology].

Paul Cooper of Customer Plus to Call Centre Helper:

In my opinion, if there is one thing that, above all else, has held back the development of great service attitudes and, in many cases, made them worse, it must be the automatic telephone answering systems that organizations have put in with no thought, and no concern for the customer, or often, the staff.

Peter Theis, again, recognized inventor of interactive voice response:

These companies are flat-out saying they don’t give a damn about callers. That’s just plain wrong…This wasn’t what I intended.

Long Beach, N.Y., librarian Carole Condon to the Chicago Tribune a few years ago:

I hate those things.

There’s even a website dedicated to getting around using automated voice systems: GetHuman.com. The site shows callers how they can bypass the systems of some of the biggest companies.

Time Magazine rated it as one of the top 50 websites on the internet in 2011. Today, the apps for GetHuman on iTunes and Google Play have 4.5 out of 5 ratings.

“Some of the biggest companies in the U.S. are in hiding—or, at least, you might think so when you want to talk to a real person at one of them,” wrote Time. “Phone numbers are often tough to find, and if you do uncover one, it could lead to a voice-menu system that tries to placate you with recorded messages.”

Okay, Now Reasons to Like

“Most of them [automated voice systems] are good,” Condon told the Chicago Tribune, shortly after saying she ‘hates’ the bad ones. “I remember the days when you called a company and either got a busy signal or a rude person who put you on hold for 10 minutes.”

I think most of us can remember that time. And we can all admit that, in those days, it was infinitely harder to get ahold of a company during business hours and, quite simply, impossible after hours.

Besides, there’s no doubt that automated systems have sped up customer service in call centers. That, in itself, is an improvement in the customer experience, especially in today’s self-service world.

Also, we kind of asked for it, given our bent towards self-service.

“We are a speedy, self-service kind of a culture,” customer service quality consultant Paul Kowal told the Tribune. “We invented the salad bar, the ATM and self-pumped gas. Automated voice systems give us ‘now’ service. We asked for this.”

So maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised about variability in service, which happens all the time across all industries. I mean, if you call a customer service center and don’t get what you want, what do you do? Call back and see if another agent can help, right? Often, that’s how it goes.

When the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO) studied real-world participation rates for outbound IVR calls (i.e., when companies use automation to call customers), the firm found that most customers were perfectly willing to speak with a computer.

FICO found that companies achieved “over 85% participation in calls made in fraud intervention, and over 70% in credit management interactions, including collections.”

Over 70%…in collections.

In fact, FICO surveyed a European utility company to see what notification method customers preferred when they’d missed a payment. About 55% chose IVR, with less then 30% choosing a call center agent and only about 5% choosing a text message.

Capable of So Much More

IBM speech engineer specialist James Lewis also believes “the problem with many automatic voice systems is that they are poorly designed and scripted.” Talking with the LA Times, he complained that some systems have “clumsy and robotic” voices, and others repeat phrases. “Both are annoying,” he said.

Researchers for the Journal of Human Factors and Ergonomics Society agree, as well, saying that “poorly designed phone-based interfaces has led to widespread dissatisfaction. We believe that the lack of published guidelines for interface design for these systems contributes to the variability in quality and, thus, to user antipathy.”

I’ve written about this before, so I won’t go into it again or I’ll start sounding like a broken record, but automated voice systems done correctly provide better customer service in today’s self-service society.

And the fact is, IVR systems are capable of so much more than what many companies use them for now. Organizations just don’t know how to use them or choose not to use them correctly. Which, again, is a shame.

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