Sign up to get full access to all our latest content, research, and network for everything customer contact.

Verify This, Bank of America - Your IVR is Absolutely Terrible

Brian Cantor

Recently, Call Center IQ contributor Tripp Babbitt made waves in the space with his updated commentary on Disney’s flawed IVR system. The piece was particularly compelling since Disney, an iconic brand, is otherwise famous for a strong commitment to the customer experience.

Bank of America, especially in the wake of its debit fee fiasco (on which it, sensibly, eventually succumbed to customer outcry), certainly does not have a reputation for magical customer experience. And when it comes to IVR, its service delivery is, sure enough, in a rockier boat than that of Disney—it is an impossibly awful inconvenience.

If there were ever a business that should make an effort to make customers feel comfortable on the phone, it should a financial institution. You know, the type of organization that houses its customers’ worth and, in that sense, holds the keys to its customers’ livelihoods. If I am worried about paying a bill on time, dealing with an investment issue or overcoming fraudulent charges and identity theft, being left on hold or cursing my way through an unintuitive IVR setup is not going to brighten my mood.

And that helps to explain why my recent experience with Bank of America’s outbound IVR was so atrociously vexing. Everybody, especially those who cover and analyze the customer service space, should have some patience for ill-conceived IVR systems, but with one of my most-important financial accounts affected, there was only so much I could tolerate. More importantly, there is only so much valued financial customers should be asked to tolerate.

An assault on customer-centricity in its own right, Bank of America has repeatedly flagged a certain type of routine, periodic transaction as "suspect." Without getting into the specific details, this type of transaction is pivotal to my ability to work and practiced by tens of millions of employed Americans—it is not the least bit illegal, mischievous or impugning to the character. But, because Bank of America also sees this as an easy way for credit card thieves to move money, it flags the transactions and deactivates my card. It’s totally insane.

(More than any other card I’ve used, the Bank of America card seems to struggle with comprehending "common sense" transactions. Case-in-point: my card was once deactivated for two same-day ATM withdrawals in Las Vegas…could Bank of America really not envision someone legitimately blowing through cash in Vegas?)

Even though I explained my obvious need for this type of transaction to Bank of America the last time the issue arose, the bank refused to honor my request to stop freaking out every time it happened. In the epitome of a "f-you, customer" attitude, Bank of America is apparently willing to make life difficult for its loyal customers just so that it can minimize having to make adjustments for potentially-fraudulent transactions down the road. While I can’t get too mad over wanting to protect my identity and assets, as a customer, I know I have protection against any transaction to which I did not consent. From my perspective, I’d thus much rather retroactively report fraud on my card than get blocked every time I make a very normal, very low-profile charge for something central to my job—and a customer-centric organization should be honoring that wish.


The debate over the card deactivation aside, Bank of America’s means of resolving the issue are the true source of dissatisfaction. Upon internally deeming charges suspicious, Bank of America’s outbound IVR dials the customer through an odd, random, unrecognizable number. Had I not begun recognizing the number from the numerous times this has happened, I would never pickup—I, like most people I know, generally make it a policy not to answer cell phone calls with numbers I don’t recognize. Isn’t that the entire premise of the caller-ID system that is built into most cell phones?

Given the lack of "proof" this is really Bank of America calling, it is very odd that the IVR, which only references the last four digits of the card as a sign that it is legitimate, immediately asks for confidential personal information, such as digits of the social security number. Again, who in their right mind would feel comfortable giving this kind of information to some random computerized voice that called from some random phone number?

But, if you’re somehow trusting enough and do give the information, you’re then directed into a prompt about some suspicious charges and are asked to verify a few recent transactions on the card. Seems easy enough, right? Wrong! The female voice reading the charges is as articulate and intelligible as the Mac computer voice would be in the middle of a stroke, making it absolutely impossible to understand what charges are being read. While, given my history with Bank of America, I’m usually pretty sure which charges were flagged, I’m still not about to just blindly give my approval to "suspicious" transactions. Moreover, the millions of other customers who might encounter this IVR will not have my experience and thus (hopefully) be even less inclined to approve charges they don’t understand.

IVRs often proven insufficient, though, so naturally Bank of America would allow you to connect with an agent if you didn’t understand one of the transactions? Wrong! If you reach a wall, whether on the first or last transaction, you cannot move forward with the process and are told that you, the customer who is supposed to be Bank of America’s top priority, must call back on your own time, possibly facing busy signals/hold times and undoubtedly needing to go through the whole process again. Just so insanely customer-centric, huh?!

The idea of using an outbound IVR to verify questionable charges is nothing short of a slap in the customer’s face. Personalized-service might be impractical for every banking issue (though, for a customer-centric organization, it really shouldn’t be), but credit/debit card fraud is a big one. Customers, whose identities and life savings could be at risk, are asked to trust a computerized voice that has a three-year-old’s grasp on pronunciation to provide pivotal account protection. How can this possibly make sense?

The icing on the cake is the fact that Bank of America has chosen to adopt an inane, overly-aggressive fraud protection system for its own benefit. My life isn’t made easier by having to deal with a frustrating IVR or having to personally call customer service when a routine, totally-unsuspicious charge is made on my account. If Bank of America wants to waste its customers’ time for the sake of not having to dedicate some of its own time to transaction adjustment down the road, the least it can do is place a live rep on the call to provide customers with the trust, information and resolution they require and, frankly, deserve.

When compared to some categorical opponents to technologies like IVR and web self-service, I generally find myself more sympathetic to the existence of such tools. As someone who loves using self-service and web chat to avoid a time-consuming, annoying phone call, I believe there is legitimate, customer-centric merit in services that also happen to be more efficient for the organization.

But that does not mean we blindly need to move away from the phone rep. Some issues are very personal and very private, and they absolutely warrant assistance from a person who can understand and contextualize these concerns.

When one is warned that his account may have been breached and advised to confirm that the card is in his possession and all charges, in a world filled with reasons to worry, are accurate, he needs a person who can help work him through the issue. He is not at all served by a computer with the task of removing many problems from the docket in a short period of time, and shame on any supposed "customer-centric" organization that does not understand this!

Are you a customer management or call center professional in the FINANCIAL space? Learn industry-specific best practices on how to PROPERLY weave IVR and other technology into the call center/agent mix! The time to register for our 3rd Call Center Summit for Financial Services is running out--get details now!