Unorthodox Wisdom for the Uncommon Call Center

When IVR Turns Into the Blind Canyon With No Way Out

Brooks Mitchell, PhD
Posted: 02/10/2010

Let me begin this column by stipulating that I am 66 years old and am fully aware that I have failed to grasp the true significance of much of today’s call center technology, including call center self-service customer service systems.

In spite of my apprehension about these call center systems, I honestly understand, however, why there is a need for it. When technology can replace call center representatives effectively ("effectively" is the key word) there is an increase in our national productivity and our economy grows. However, I just get nervous around some systems, which I suspect are technology in search of a solution. I admit it.

Technology: A Blessing Or A Curse?

Let me tell you a story. A few weeks ago I was returning from a long trip to Mexico. It was a grueling trip and I was tired. I was traveling with a friend, and to make the trip from the airport to home easier, I had a limo waiting for us. The plan was simple: I would drop my friend off in south Denver and than relax on the hour ride to my home in Fort Collins. As soon as we got into the limo, I was ready to go. But there was an irritating delay because the driver was sitting there fussing with his new GPS system. He asked my friend for his exact address and was having difficulty entering it. I was obviously very annoyed as I chided the driver, "What is this all about? Do you think my friend doesn’t know how to find his home? Come on, man, give me a break. Just follow his instructions." The driver was very hurt. He wanted to use the GPS and have the computerized voice tell him exactly where to turn. A clear misuse of technology.

Tangling Call Center Technology

I have had similar issues with my associates at Snowfly, Inc. I’m old-fashioned. I still have all my phone numbers printed out and inserted into my paper-and-pencil appointment book that I bought at Office Depot. Occasionally, I’ll ask one of my guys for a phone number and they’ll turn on their little Blackberry and start twisting around and eventually give me the number. If it’s in the sunlight, it’s even more difficult. I always taunt them when this happens. "Hey, guys, I could have opened my appointment book and had that number 30 seconds quicker than you." Technology is not always faster!

So back to the subject of call center self-serve systems, I’m now convinced this call center technology is here to stay and more customers accept them than do not. But to soothe my angst, here are a few thoughts.

  1. Please don’t try to convince me this is a good deal to use the automated statement, "Thank you for calling XYZ company. To better serve you, we have automated this process." That is a lot of crap and is an insult to my intelligence. You are using call center technology to make your system more in line with your needs, not mine. Why don’t you just say something like: "I hope you will take the time to use our automated self-service system. If at any point in time this becomes cumbersome, please press 0 and a live operator will talk to you."
  2. I like it when I have music when I am put on hold. At least I know that I have not been disconnected. I also like it when people tell me how long I am going to have to be on hold. I think it would be a very good idea for people to tell me at the beginning of the message if I’m going to need things like a credit card, Social Security number, an account number, etc. This saves me the chest pains that instantly occur when I finally get to talk with a live operator and discover my account number is in another location.
  3. I wish I had a little reinforcement along the way. If I press the first button correctly, It would be nice to hear someone say "Thank you. You’ve done very well. Now you’re on to the next step." It makes me feel good to know I have done something right to this point.
  4. I would like some kind a little reward for making it completely through the system. How about giving me a raffle tickets, frequent flyer points or something that would make me more likely to do this again.


These procedures could go a long way toward making the self-service situation a little more palatable to people of my baby boomer generation.

Avoid the Blind Canyon With No Way Out

Above all, please design your self-service system so that it can never put me in a blind canyon with no way out. When this happens, I just go nuts and want to hurt somebody. I get the same feeling when I put money into a broken vending machine that won’t give my money back. To me there is no worse emotion than the helpless sensation of being terminally screwed by "nonhuman" objects or systems.

Now, if you are really invested into call center self-service technology and are convinced it is the right solution for your call center, I have a challenge. Why don’t you survey your user/customers and get a baseline of their perception of the call center process and their corresponding satisfaction. This customer data could be compared to the same information for those users of the "live" option. Armed with this information, you could have "real" call center data with which to make informed decisions about your call center self-service system. Come on, I dare you, do it! Send me the data and I will feature your company in a future column.

Now, I have an honest self assessment about my feelings concerning call center self-service systems. When I talk to a live call center representative, I feel like I have a chance to use my considerable charm to get what I want. You just can’t do that with an automated system.

Brooks Mitchell, PhD
Posted: 02/10/2010

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