IVRs and Traumatic Brain Injury

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When a person receives a sharp blow to the head, one of the simplest indicators of the seriousness of the injury is the person’s ability to accurately report where he is and what’s going on around him. We might ask someone, “What day is it?” “Who’s the president?” or, “What town are we in?” Questions like these relate to the person’s ability to orient himself in time and space. Giving the correct answers to these questions is a sign that someone is inhabiting the same reality as the rest of us. If a person can’t answer these questions appropriately, then it’s a sign he needs medical attention right away. Of course, some people can’t answer these orienting questions even when they haven’t been hit on the head, but it’s still a sign of needing medical (or at least psychological) attention. In either case, we consider a person who fails to express an understanding of his physical and temporal situation seriously deficient. 

I say all of this to point out that situational awareness is a baseline expectation among human beings with whom we might interact. No one is willingly going to try to have a productive conversation with someone who doesn’t know where he is or what’s going on around him. Can you imagine a bank teller with a concussion carrying out transactions and giving you accurate information? Even if she were somehow able to complete a task, how confident would you feel about the result?  

But here’s the scary thing: Interactive voice response systems (IVRs) very often behave like people with traumatic brain injuries. Many IVRs display no clue of what’s going on at the time of a call, and yet we expect callers to happily interact with them, trust the information they get, and believe their transactions are being processed correctly.  

Among the many indignities we ask people to suffer when they use self-service technology, this is one of the worst. I started thinking about this when I posted a request to the voice user interface designers (VUIDs) Yahoo group (www.groups.yahoo.com/group/vuids) asking for recent bad IVR experiences. I was looking for examples for a talk I was giving, and a fellow VUID posted a story about how frustrated she’d been calling her cable provider to inquire about an outage she was experiencing. The IVR forced her to choose between television, Internet, and phone at the front of the call, with nary a mention of the outage. Which one should she select? Both her television and Internet service were supplied by the cable company, and both were nonfunctional. 

This IVR displayed multiple levels of a lack of situational awareness that: 

  • infuriated the customer;
  • forced a call to route to an agent, when it might have been fully automated; 
  • incited a public rant about poor service; and 
  • affected overall satisfaction with the company. 

So what went wrong, and how could it have been prevented? The first problem is not acknowledging that customers might subscribe to multiple services. Presumably this cable company likes the fact that people buy television and Internet service from it—so it makes sense to give these good customers their own special more-than-one-service option in the menu. This is the most basic kind of situational awareness: knowing about the relationship between your customers and your organization.

The next issue is failing to clue the IVR into what’s currently happening with the cable provider’s technology. Cable networks are sophisticated and well-monitored systems. If there’s an outage, the cable provider probably knows about it before you do. Often, however, companies don’t bring the IVR into the loop. It’s a simple process to localize a call and see whether issues affect the relevant part of a cable network, so it’s puzzling why more organizations don’t do this.  

My colleague would have had nothing to rant about if her cable provider’s IVR used her automated number identification or dialed number identification service information to see that there was an outage in her area, played a message to that effect, and gave some information about what would happen next. The company could have offered to send an email or text message when the outage was resolved, or to place an automated outbound call to inform the customer. Even just telling the customer to check back in 30 minutes would have been a better solution than saying nothing at all.  

Taking simple steps toward situational awareness can keep your IVR from sounding as if it has been hit in the head, making customers more willing to use it.

Susan Hura, Ph.D., is principal and founder at SpeechUsability. She can be reached at susan@speechusability.com.

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