Help Yourself

Has it struck you that personal service seems to be diminishing, if not outright disappearing? Companies rely more and more on tools like interactive voice response and other telephony advancements instead of on people. You call a company for the first time and hear a recorded message. The opening greeting may offer you a list of choices so long and confusing you hang up and try again, this time taking note, so you can figure out which number to press. Or you call your faithful, longtime provider, expecting you’ll be able to zip through your standard transaction in your standard way and are surprised to hear, “Please listen carefully, as our menu has changed.”

Remember when you used to be able to call the weather number for free? You called the weather, you got a recording of the weather. Quick, straightforward, and reliable. Unfortunately, in today’s marketplace the caller is forced to be as focused and alert as a well-trained customer service rep. On the Web, the other primary self-service channel, designed a graphical presentation that became the tacit standard for shopping. But there’s no such exemplar on the phone.

The prompts on each company’s IVR system are just a little bit different. Some tell you to press the pound key to finish each entry, for example, and some don’t. Menus often don’t branch the way you’d expect, or at different points in the interaction they ask you to press varying number keys for the same function. The department you want to reach isn’t mentioned, or isn’t described clearly; you know it has to be there somewhere, but you don’t recognize it because they call it something else.

The pace often drags and the messages go on interminably, particularly when you can’t interrupt to abbreviate them but must wait for the recording to finish. Sometimes you press in a code and the system ignores you. Or you press at the right time, but you wait again while the system wastes your time by “acknowledging” you — “You have selected our top-notch service department. Please hold while we transfer you to one of our crackerjack service professionals” — and you wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into this time.

Even worse are some of the systems that use voice recognition — or am I the only one who minds when a bizarrely perky (female) or hearty (male) voice tells me it can’t understand what I just said, and I have to say it again like a child who hasn’t recited her homework correctly?

Beneficent business

At the least, companies that claim to provide “service” on the phone without human intervention should aspire to the old AT&T motto, “Easy To Do Business With,” and not just leap at the ostensible cost savings that non-human service provides. (The savings are only ostensible because self-service options like IVR often generate new categories of incoming live calls even as they eliminate others.)

Except for straightforward information requests — investment yield or account balance are good examples — a proficient, engaging person will always create more satisfaction than an automated response.

Perhaps you should consider a zero-based budgeting approach and calculate whether there would be incremental business benefit if you moved away from self-service toward personal service. If your margins can support the investment, then providing more service through focused attention and nuanced up- and cross-selling may pay off in greater dollars per sale, more sales per customer per year, and longer retention of satisfied customers.

On the other hand, if your company’s current business strategy forces the self-service issue, or if staffing problems determine that automation will provide more consistent accessibility of service than humans can, a review of your IVR setup may be in order, especially if its design was originally left to your technical people.

What the caller knows

Have your telephony people prepare a diagram of all the menus to show where the various branches and choices lead. (You’d be amazed at how many companies there are where no one can find the original document, or the programming has been revised but the graphic representation of it has not been kept up-to-date.) Look at the diagram and put it in a drawer for now.

Choose the ten most frequently occurring categories of inquiries or complaints that are processed by the IVR. Then call up the system and work your way through each of the categories. Try to maintain the “beginner’s mind” of a prospect or first-time customer instead of acting like the knowledgeable insider you are.

Evaluate the clarity and length of the instructional text as you go through each call. Don’t study the written scripts or repeat the recorded loops. See if you can grasp what’s going on the first time around, which is what your customers will be trying to do. Are any leaps of faith required, any superior instincts, or is everything perfectly understandable? You’ll want to take notes as you go.

Here are some specific points to listen for as you review:

  • In both language and tone, is the opening message welcoming, reassuring, and in keeping with your brand image?
  • Can frequent callers avoid or interrupt any extra or repetitious loops or branches? Be particularly sensitive to sales messages that the customer is forced to hear before selecting any prompt.
  • Is the sequence logical?
  • Are there too many choices or levels so the customer feels confused or harassed by the machine and is afraid of making a mistake? More than three choices plus a live representative is too many at any one level.
  • Is the recording interesting enough to keep the customer focused? Tone of voice and inflection are as important as the content and word choice.
  • Is it easy (that means you know which number to press and you get a prompt response) to get to a live representative for help?
  • If the automated service process includes capturing customer data, does the IVR text specify how soon the new information about the customer you’re submitting will be posted to the account?

If all these things work, consider yourself in pretty fair shape. Document all the bobbles, dead ends, or places where you had to guess what the system asked for. Compare them to that original diagram you got from the telephony folks and stowed in your drawer, and see how well the experience matches the plan. The diagram will serve as a good starting place for conveying back to the tech staff whatever changes are required.

Liz Kislik, president of Liz Kislik Associates, specializes in planning and implementing customer marketing and service efforts that involve people and phones. She can be reached at 100 Merrick Road, Suite 505E, Rockville Centre, NY 11570, or by phone at (516) 568-2932.

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