Policies and Technologies for Improving the Customer Experience

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Three years ago: I need to be able to speak and listen to computers. That would be wonderful!

Two days ago: I called a company with one of these automated speech systems. I really hated it.

Yes, automated speech and dual-tone, multifrequency systems enable callers to get answers to the most common questions and be routed to human agents for more difficult questions. But callers still hate the automated phone systems.

Paul English has tapped this dislike for automated speech systems with his Web site, www.gethuman.com, which lists escape keys to bypass automated systems and be placed in the queue for a human agent. English has appeared on national TV and radio, and is the subject of many newspaper articles. His message resonates with telephone users: telephone support systems are difficult to use and hinder consumers from getting the support they deserve.

Many companies have a policy of containment—keeping the caller in the automated system because it costs less than a human agent. User interface designers have long understood that this is a bad policy.

Many automated systems are sold with the promise that they would reduce costs. Some managers still equate reducing costs with containment. Reducing costs should be equated with helping customers as quickly and pleasantly as possible, either with an automated system, human agents, or a combination of both.

On the positive side, English is now defining guidelines for improving the service quality of automated and semi-automated systems, both speech and touchtone. These guidelines identify many of the most common aspects of automated systems that annoy and anger telephone users. For example:

  • The caller must always be able to dial 0 or say operator to queue for a human.
  • An accurate estimated wait time, based on call traffic statistics at the time of the call, should always be given when the caller arrives in the queue. A revised update should be provided periodically during hold time.
  • Callers should never be asked to repeat information (such as name, full account number, description of issue, etc.) provided to a human or an automated system during a call.
  • When a human is not available, callers should be offered the option to be called back. If 24-hour service is not available, the caller should be able to leave a message, including a request for a call back the following business day.
  • Callers should not be forced to listen to long prompts.
  • While holding, allow callers to disable hold music; remember their selection for future calls.
  • If ads or promotions are played, organizations should allow users to disable them.

The above guidelines are neither complete nor final, but are still being developed by the gethuman.com team. The final guidelines could become a de facto bill of rights for automated telephone system users.

Following the example set by Consumer Reports magazine, the gethuman team plans to conduct surveys and test automated and semi-automated systems to see how well they follow gethuman.com guidelines. Results will be posted on the gethuman.com Web site. It will be interesting to see how companies respond to the scores. I suspect that companies with low scores will make excuses, while companies with high scores will boast about their great service.

If you are a tool or platform vendor, investigate how your products can encourage better interaction between callers and automated systems. If your company supports an automated telephone system, investigate what can be done now to improve its user interface and avoid low scores on the gethuman.com Web site. Continue to do your own usability testing and refine your system to help callers get the support they deserve quickly and pleasantly.

In the future, we would all like to hear: I called one of those automated speech systems. I was surprised how clever it was about figuring out what I needed. It was much better than being placed on hold.

James Larson is an independent consultant and VoiceXML trainer. He is the author of the home study guide and reference The VXMLGuide (www.vxmlguide.com). He can be reached at 503-645-3598 or at jim@larson-tech.com.

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