Speech Technology Magazine

My Call Isn't All That Important to Me

When battling an IVR, there's not always a clear winner.
By Moshe Yudkowsky - Posted Dec 6, 2013
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Don't tell my editor, but this afternoon I tossed out my previous column and rewrote it from scratch. (Editor's reaction: facepalm.) If anyone would like to discuss intelligent voice assistants, we'll talk about that at a "sunrise discussion" during the 2012 SpeechTEK conference, and you can catch me then.

Instead, today's topic is a sad message to the people who work so hard on IVR systems: My call isn't all that important to me.

Let's start with the City of Chicago water department, which has a habit of distributing bills with mysterious charges on them. In a spirit of discovery, I gave them a call.

Surprisingly, the water department actually uses ASR, not that it worked particularly well for me. The choices didn't relate to my problem, and I had trouble with my account number. I never did manage to speak to anyone there; the closest I got was an endless loop of awful music interspersed with annoying exhortations about how important my call was.

And that, folks, was just my first annoying call of the day. Every time the one-minute mark rolled around, and my brain finally started to tune out the music, the little voice came on again to tell me how important my call was. Guess what? The call simply isn't that important to me. I have other things to do. I did not wake up this morning eagerly anticipating a phone call to the water department. It's a chore, something that I do out of necessity and not from pleasure. Get it done. Let me ignore the call as much as possible—don't force me to focus all my attention on it as I wait endlessly on hold. Paying attention to the call is your job, not my job.

I dropped the call. When it comes to water bills, there are some things man is simply not meant to know.

If you do want to improve your customer relations, you should "eat your own dog food." This is a common phrase in the engineering community: It means that you must use your own product if you ever want it to improve. If you work in the water department, you can call George down in accounting to fix a problem, which means you never try to navigate the phone menu. You never spend endless time on hold. You never fall behind polishing off your magazine article not only because you're on hold, but because even on hold, the call demands your complete attention.

If you work at the water department, you probably understand why all the line items are repeated twice. You probably know which magic choice will get you an attendant who can explain things. But even so, if you eat your own dog food, at least you'll experience the long wait times, the awful music, and the irritating periodic announcements timed to derail your train of thought.

Next up was a call to my bank because of problems with online account access. I entered my password correctly several times in a row (well, it was the correct password, but for the wrong account...) and got myself locked out. The Web page gave me a number to call, and I dialed it with the expectation that I'd trade some personal secrets for a new password.

Instead of a specific phone number that routes me to a customer service representative, I was dumped into the general bank IVR system. I had to guess which options to choose for Web support, and then I had to play a guessing game with the IVR system to find my branch. I lost: My branch, acquired months ago, isn't even in the system, and my bank's phone system was therefore useless to me. I hung up and called the branch directly.

So let me reiterate: The call simply isn't that important to me. What is important to me is access to my account. The call was a means to an end, and an ineffectual one to boot. The Web page could have said, "Call your branch and speak to a manager"—it could easily list the branches and the phone numbers. Get it done. If I weren't already a customer, I'd have hung up at the second IVR prompt and attempted to find, not necessarily a better bank, but a bank that understands what is important to me: not calls, but outcomes, and swift ones at that.


Moshe Yudkowsky, Ph.D., is president of Disaggregate Consulting and author of The Pebble and the Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolution. He can be reached at speech@pobox.com.


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