Psych! Don't Send Callers to the Web Site

Susan Hura

We all have our pet peeves with automated telephone systems: ads for stuff we don’t want, long legal disclaimers or having to repeat information once transferred to a live call center representative. I hate them all, but my number one complaint is navigating through an interactive voice response (IVR) system only to be told, "Sorry, if you want to do this you’ll have to visit our Web site at www-dot…"

Nothing is more infuriating to me—and to many end users—than playing nicely with an IVR system only to be rudely turned away.

I recently encountered several call center applications that use this pitiful technique, and it made me wonder why it’s so endemic to IVR interactions. First, let’s consider the pragmatics of this situation. The user, either a customer or potential customer, has chosen to pick up the phone in an attempt to contact an organization. When the call goes through, she is confronted with an IVR that presents her with various choices via a menu. She cooperates and provides the appropriate responses to reach some terminal point in the application, when she is suddenly confronted with a message that tells her, "We can’t help you with that." This has that slap-in-the-face quality for a couple of distinct reasons. First, this is Grice’s Maxim of Relevance at work—cooperative speakers only say things that are relevant to the conversation, so when the IVR offers order status, for example, and then can’t provide it, it breaks one of the fundamental unwritten rules of conversation.

Call Center Etiquette

The second reason is that "We can’t help you here" is rightly perceived as rude. I’m not talking about the particular wording of the prompt because many prompts used in this situation contain ridiculously overly-polite language. It doesn’t matter how you say it; it’s just plain rude to tell customers who have chosen to call and cooperated that you’re not willing to help them in their chosen modality. It’s a classic psych out: Provide a phone number for users to dial, present them with an option, and when they choose it…Psych! Fooled you, we don’t do that here!

I’m not suggesting that the call center is mean-spirited in directing callers to their Web sites, but I think we underestimate the damage done by turning customers away. I recently heard a phone user spontaneously burst out with, "I can’t go online because I don’t have my computer!"

So why does the call center do this? The call center understands at some level that they’re not providing the best customer service, but the call center chooses to do it anyway. The arguments I hear most often are that it’s too expensive to speech-enable everything on the Web, and that some functionalities are bad fits for IVR speech technologies.

Don’t Make Your Customers Jump Through Hoops

To me these are both bad excuses that we accept without enough consideration. Can you imagine navigating several clicks into a Web site only to get to a page that tells you, Sorry, you have to call our IVR to do that, and getting no other options?

The cost of offering some functionality via the IVR is less than the cost of lost customers. Vocal Laboratories has data that shows a single bad interaction with an IVR is enough for customers to consider taking their business elsewhere, and these interactions certainly qualify.

As to the notion that not all functionality is a good fit for speech, this is true to a certain extent, but there is room for us to do more for our customers. If the fit is imperfect for speech, the current strategy is for call center representatives to throw up their hands in despair and tell people to go to the Web site. Let’s follow the pattern set by our friends who design Web pages: If you can’t do it on the Web, offer another mode of interaction, like live chat or e-mail. Consider these recommendations for providing better service within the IVR:

  • For status lookups: If you can show it on the Web, you ought to be able to read it out in the IVR. If the information is long or complex, present a summary version first, then offer details if the user wants them.
  • For forms that are downloadable via the Web: Offer to e-mail or fax them. (Collecting an e-mail address in an IVR is tough, so I recommend avoiding it here.)
  • Offer to e-mail, text, or fax a printed version of any status readout, instructions or other information that users might want as a hard copy.
  • If you’re absolutely unable to service customers in the IVR, always offer the option to speak to a call center representative. Remember—they chose to use the call center rather than go online, and probably for good reason!

I urge you to look for creative solutions that remind customers how great our most convenient and ubiquitous technology, the telephone, can be to do business with us.

First published on Call Center IQ.