Is Paul English Right?

Why is it when Citibank launches an ad campaign saying its customers can press "0" to talk to a human, it becomes big news? Have we reached a point where the ability to reach an operator is that big a deal? By now, virtually everyone knows the magic phrase: "Hello. Your call is important to us. If you are an existing customer, please press or say one."

Them's fightin' words to anti-IVR crusader Paul English, founder of gethuman.com and considered by many to be the voice of the customer. Over the last few years the familiar, and not always welcome, sound of the interactive voice response (IVR) and similar automated systems have become a regular part of our lives. We hear them when we call an airline to book a flight, a phone company to question a bill, a computer company to solve a glitch. Many agree with English that the automated or virtual attendant is one of the banes of life in modern society. Still others have less emotion invested in the issue, but would probably be happy to share an off-color remark about the time they attempted to navigate their way through an IVR application they believed would help them, only to find themselves caught in a cul-de-sac of poor choices and an IVR that pretended not to know what "0" means.

We've all been there. But believe it or not, the companies that install these systems are trying to help customers. And for the most part they are helping customers.

Does this mean English and all the news reporters who have lately given him his 15 minutes of fame are wrong? No, of course not. English is right, but he is right because he has chosen an obvious, defenseless enemy—the IVR, which can't fight back. He highlights the most egregious examples of how poorly designed technology frustrates and angers vulnerable customers, such as the elderly and the handicapped. Here, English is right.

How and when should companies utilize voice-self service? The further we dig into the question of automated-self service, the murkier the situation becomes. At what point should callers be allowed or even encouraged to zero out? How important are the voices of the self-service personas? What should be the trade-off between costs and personal help? In Europe, for example, consumers pay 10 to 15 cents per minute for assisted service. Would Americans be willing to do so?

On these more complicated questions, English is not right. In fact, he is of little help, because designing call centers is not his job. But I have some answers to these questions.

When Is Self-Service OK?

Proactive notification systems and IVRs daily help millions of people obtain critical information quickly and easily. And the automated service is a two-way information broker. You call it, but it also calls you. I don't forget dental appointments because my dentist's outbound system automatically calls me the day before with a reminder. Airlines call me with announcements of a change to my flight times. Aside from election season, people rarely hang up on these outbound applications or demand to speak with an agent. In fact, such calls throw an interesting light on the human versus virtual attendant debate. People would much rather get an automated call about their next trip to the dentist than a personal call from a market research firm. We judge the call by the importance of the information it delivers, not whether the voice we hear is recorded or live.

Things are less clear when we call in and reach an IVR. When we place the call, the IVR has to figure out what we want. To do this, it offers us a range of choices. Selecting an option frequently leads to another array of choices. Most people recognize this scenario as the classic IVR application, and the one that bothers critics.

But, with proper voice recognition, automated self-service works as quickly and as well as a live representative. It is particularly good at confirming information and executing specific demands. Did you receive that promised credit on your credit card bill? Is the shipment on its way? What is my checking account balance? And it is exactly what we want when we need to cancel newspaper deliveries before a trip.

Self-service can deliver customized news, execute specific orders, and confirm information without causing customer frustration. More importantly, it ensures that a live representative is available when we need one for complex transactions. When an IVR cannot solve a problem the best thing it can do is identify the caller and his issue and send him to the right agent the first time.

The Right to Zero Out

That Citibank feels it can win customers by promising they can dial zero to get human assistance is proof that too many companies have demanded too much of the IVR. For some companies, the IVR has become a Procrustean bed that customers of all types are forced into, regardless of the fit. Many customers find the fit painful, and they are crying uncle. Companies such as Citibank have heard their cry.

But the Citibank ad has even more to teach us about the IVR and "0." The ad does not promise an end to IVRs. In fact, the promise to respond to "0" implies that callers definitely will be greeted by an IVR. And this serves to remind the call center industry and our customers of a very basic fact: the IVR and the employees in the call center are not mutually exclusive elements of a customer service system. In fact, one of the purposes of an IVR is to deliver callers to helpful humans. Companies that make it difficult for callers to zero out and get human help are undermining their IVRs.

The objection to giving callers the zeroout option is that the help of call center agents is very expensive. This is certainly true, and companies have the right and even the responsibility to ensure that they guard this resource as well as any other. But there are customer-friendly ways to do this. Technologies such as automatic number identification and computer-telephony integration can work with the IVR to develop a profile of the customer's history and current need. This profile can be matched with business rules that deliver agent help to high-value customers and those with a recurring problem. Depending upon the business and the application, IVRs can be designed to allow zeroing out only after a certain amount of customer data has been collected. Such a rule allows the IVR to gather the data that will make an agent call more productive, briefer, and less expensive.

In sum, the IVR and the agents should have a symbiotic relationship. The former should feed the latter a steady diet of customer calls, along with the extra data ingredients that make for a satisfying and lowcal, er, low-cost experience. And, dropping this metaphor, it should be easy for callers to zero out. Callers don't want to feel trapped. The IVR should establish a rapport with callers that assures them of a helpful experience— one that includes dialing "0."

Hi, I'm Simone

Developing a rapport between customers and automated-self service is possible, and it is important. What do customers hear when they reach an IVR? A human voice. But instead of sounding apathetic, what if that voice sent the message that someone at the organization knows who you are, what you want, and why you chose to be a customer? The folks at Virgin Mobile USA have that kind of voice on their IVR.

"Hey, what's up? I'm Simone. Whaddya want to do?" That's what callers hear when they dial the company, and Virgin Mobile's young customers like Simone. The company, which once experienced very high rates of call abandonment and zeroing out, today completes nearly 40 percent of its calls within the low-cost, efficient— and now friendly—self-service IVR.


The telephone is a very personal kind of technology. Far more than radio, television, or the Internet, we feel close to the phone. We hold it, cradle it between shoulder and chin, and talk to it. It should be no surprise, then, that some have railed against the IVR. It has changed something we knew.

Previous changes to the phone were also disliked. Objections to the IVR are reminiscent of complaints heard 40 years ago about the good old days before dial telephones. Rather than ask whether Paul English is right, we might as well ask if Alan King was right. In the 1960s he took on the issue of whether eliminating the need for an operator to make phone calls took away from the experience. The advent of direct dialing meant callers did not need to reach the operator and say, "Please connect me to Murray Hill 9578." You made the call yourself. The transition to this kind of automation was unsettling and seemed a little inhuman to some. In this century the IVR may be our own version of the direct-dial telephone. It crushes our established idea about how a phone call should be answered. But the IVR, like the direct-dial phone, offers undeniable benefits, and doing without it will soon be as quaint and unthinkable as returning to the time of "Operator, get me Murray Hill 9578."

Wes Hayden is the president and chief executive officer of Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories.

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