Are You Happy When People Call?

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The following is an exercise in cognitive reframing for the call center industry. The facts of the situation aren’t changing, but the way we think about it needs to undergo a fundamental shift. If we fail to internalize a new way of thinking about how we treat the customers who call us, then I fear call centers and interactive voice response (IVR) systems are doomed to remain the butt of jokes and the object of fury. So ask yourselves the question in the title of this column, ponder it for a moment, and read on.

When people call your company, it means one of three good things: 

Good thing #1: They’re calling because they are your customers. Having customers is good. Customers are why your company exists. To bring it down to a mundanely personal level, customers are why you have a job.

Good thing #2: They’re calling because they want to be your customer. The only thing better than an existing customer is a new customer. New customers mean more money coming in, and that’s a primary goal of business.

Good thing #3: They’re calling to complain. Contrary to what every call center agent and manager will tell you, this is also a good thing. Complaints identify aspects of your product or business process that are not satisfying your customers. Think of it this way: Figuring out what’s wrong is the first step in any quality improvement exercise, and your customers are doing this work for you—for free.

Sounds Fake

I challenge you to find a call center where the representative or IVR that answers the phone actually sounds happy to get the call, like it’s her job to help you out. Lots of call centers go through the motions of seeming happy about getting calls. It’s easy to find disingenuous gratitude read from a script. (“Because you’re a valued customer, Mrs. Hura, we’d like to extend you the following offer.”) Who hasn’t suffered fake cheerful IVR prompting that stays cheerful no matter what the circumstance?

The problem is that attitude seeps down from above. If company management sees calls from customers as a problem, a necessary evil that must be endured, then that will be reflected in the way the call center (and its associated technology) is prioritized, designed, and funded. If the call center is seen primarily as a “cost of doing business,” then giving callers an excellent over-the-phone experience will not be highly valued. 

Businesses are smart enough to realize that you can’t be overtly rude to customers; you have to say the right words. You can’t say, “Geez, quit calling! Just give us your money and shut up already!” Instead, you have to say, “Thank you for calling!” The problem with this strategy is that customers totally see through it.

Every time I speak to people about their experiences calling companies, whether it’s in a usability test or just at my kids’ karate practice, I hear the same things: Companies don’t want us to call; it’s too expensive to let us talk to real people; or they use those automated systems to save money. Business owners of IVR systems, do you hear me? You’re not fooling anyone! You’d rather not be taking these calls, and your customers know that. 

It’s the same way kids can sense when parents try to make them follow a rule they don’t obey themselves. “No sweets before dinner” doesn’t go very far when you’re shoveling a Twinkie in your mouth, and “Thank you for calling!” doesn’t cut it when it’s clear that your goal as an organization is to get people off of the phone as quickly and cheaply as you can. 

All of this leaves us VUI designers in a quandary. We’re tasked with designing IVR systems that seem friendly and attentive, that callers will use happily, and yet we’re told we have to keep as many calls as possible “contained” in the IVR, that there’s no money for a computer-telephony integration solution that would send the information collected in the IVR to the agent, and worst of all, that there is no time or money in the budget to get customer feedback that would allow us to design the best experience under these challenging circumstances. 

Can you imagine what it would be like to call a company and actually feel like it wanted to take your call? I challenge call center operators to have every element of the caller experience reflect the gratitude and respect we should feel for customers who choose to use the telephone to communicate with us. 

Susan Hura is principal and founder of SpeechUsability, a VUI design consulting firm. She can be reached at susan@speechusability.com.

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