“Your Call Is Important To Us. Really.”

By | November 30, 2005

Paul English’s website about about getting around ‘interactive voice response’ phone systems (where you talk and a computer listens) is already triggering industry rebuttals, like this one from Angel.com – Top 5 Reasons NOT to Zero Out of an IVR System (via Dan Gillmor):

If you’ve visited Paul English’s website, you’ve learned how to “zero out” of the automated voice systems of many companies. As the market leader for on-demand call center and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) solutions, Angel.com is here to tell you why zeroing out will only hinder your attempts to accomplish your objective for the call.

It’s actually a bit of a naff response (not least because the ‘market leader’ can’t even bring itself to provide a link to Paul English’s site, which displays either the company’s ignorance or its petulance (neither looks pretty). But the argument is also weak:

Automated voice systems, otherwise known as Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems, can minimize the caller’s wait time by making sure they get to the right person, and if designed correctly, can often answer the most frequent inquiries immediately.

And then goes on to list 5 reasons why you should NOT zero out of an IVR System — starting off with the assertion that

#1 Most IVR systems are good, especially speech-enabled systems. Two-thirds of consumers feel voice automation is efficient and fulfills their needs, whereas 34% of consumers complain that they have dealt with unfriendly live agents.

This according to a “landmark study on consumer attitudes on customer service conducted by Nuance and Harris Interactive” which once again isn’t linked to. I believe they’re referring to this one (PDF only), which was commissioned by a company called Nuance which, er, makes IVR systems like Call Steering. Their ‘study’ reads more like a press release than a ‘landmark study’:

Businesses are choosing automated speech applications because they allow customers to interact in a more natural fashion than cumbersome keypad or touch-tone systems. It’s no surprise, then, that the majority of speech users (61 percent) are highly satisfied with their most recent speech encounter.

(In fact, if one wants to get picky, I believe that 61% — which I’m guessing Angel.com is citing as fulfilling their needs — represents only 61% of 41% of the sample of 326 people, since only 41% of people interviewed had actually used an IVR in the previous three months. So that’s 82 people according to my bad math. The landmark survey is relying on the word of 82 people? And I couldn’t find any reference to 34% of consumers complaining about ‘unfriendly live agents’, although perhaps it’s in another account of the study. )

Anyway, the 5 reasons go on:

#2 Every selection you make in the IVR system will help the system make progress towards solving your problem either in the IVR system or by routing you to the most qualified live agent.

I can’t really argue with that, but of course this assumes that the IVR system is better than a ‘live agent’. If the live agent were qualified and well-trained, wouldn’t the converse be true?

#3 By zeroing out at the first prompt, you give up control over the type of agent you will ultimately speak to. You will likely end up in the most generic queue and, hence, the queue with the longest wait time. Then you’ll explain your problem to somebody who is not qualified to solve the problem, who in turn will place you into yet another queue.

Once again, the assumption is that the staff are actually less qualified than the computer. I can see what they’re getting at — that they have only a limited number of qualified staff, so they need to line up their customer duckies to maximise the usage of those staff — but it all rests on the IVR system being smart enough to understand problems that may not easily fit menu options. My experience is that as many times as this works, it doesn’t, and that you get sent to the back of a queue because the IVR (or touch tone options) pushes you into the wrong part of the maze.

#4 In almost all cases, if you have a request that can be resolved completely by an IVR system (like account balance, order status etc.), using the IVR system correctly will get you results faster than talking to a human.

Of course; I don’t think anyone’s questioning the usefulness of checking a bank balance via this system. I doubt anyone would quibble with that; indeed it’s somewhat creepy having a real person read out your bank balance (‘Dude! You’ve only got $34.23 in your account. Better get a real job”) but the real naffness in this line of argument is betrayed by the last ‘reason’:

#5 The more people that use IVR systems for easy requests (see #4), the greater the number of live agents who are available for complex requests. This leads to better and more qualified service for everyone – the IVR system you are doing a service to all your fellow callers.

In other words, by subjecting yourself to a time-wasting maze of dumb or irrelevant choices you’re helping the company cut down the number of ‘live agents’ who actually provide a service. Or, as Paul English puts it in his rebuttal:

Of course IVR systems sometimes work, and that they can save you time for some very specific simple requests (e.g., check flight arrival) and they can sometimes save you time by directing you to the correct department. However, consumers are not stupid, and they should be given the choice to connect to a human when they want.

Hear, hear.

3 thoughts on ““Your Call Is Important To Us. Really.”

  1. Max Fromm


    Executive has an answer to phone system cheat sheet
    By Bruce Mohl, Globe Staff | December 2, 2005

    Paul English can add this to his cheat sheet on how to reach a human on a computerized phone system: have a story in the newspaper.

    English, the subject of a Nov. 6 Globe article, has caught the attention of Michael Zirngibl, chief executive of Angel.com, one of the leading makers of automated voice systems.

    Zirngibl, whose McLean, Va., firm’s clients includes Adidas, Kellogg’s and the US Army, applauded English’s efforts on behalf of consumers but said there were a lot of things wrong with his approach. English, a 42-year-old Arlington software engineer, made headlines with his personal website, paulenglish.com, which houses a cheat sheet that tells people how to reach a human on the voice systems of more than 100 companies. Zirngibl said such systems often help consumers more efficiently than live agents.

    To show that automation can be good and turn English’s assault into a business opportunity, Zirngibl put out his own cheat sheet for businesses on how to create customer-friendly systems. Among the tips: never hide the option for speaking to a live agent and never require callers to repeat personal information once they reach a human being.

    Zirngibl said it was easy for English to urge companies to spend more time talking directly to their customers when his own company, Kayak.com, was losing money. English is the cofounder of the travel search engine.

    English said Angel is trying to spin the negative image the phone systems have received to its own advantage. ”It’s good public relations, but I think it’s slightly sleazy,” he said.

    Angel.com also has bought ads on Google that pop up when anyone searches for ”Paul English.”

    English said it’s true that the phone systems can handle some tasks well, but consumers should always be given the option of pressing ”0″ at any time to talk to a live person. He said companies should be upfront about wait times and consumers should be allowed to rate their experience with the phone system after every call.

    Since the Globe story, English has become something of a media sensation, giving more than 100 radio, TV and print interviews, including one for the Dec. 5 issue of People magazine. The cheat sheet on his website has received more than 80,000 visits a day since the story appeared, he said.

    ”It’s crazy that something so simple has generated so much attention,” English said. ”It’s not that the cheat sheet itself is so great. It’s that it hit a nerve

  2. Kate

    Paul English makes some great points. I saw his piece on ABC World News Tonight and he’s bringing to light that most companies operating in the IVR space have shoddy systems. In my opinion, Angel.com is one of the few companies in the IVR industry trying to change things, however, with web-based next generation systems that link to CRM systems. Small businesses are finally able to create IVR systems (using a self service model if they wish) that are even more sophisticated than what large industry is using. My Dad uses the system for his online ebay store selling vintage posters and autographed baseballs. He’s able to provide far better customer service using Angel.com’s system than he would ever be able to provide on his own. The boon to small business of using these inexpensive, next generation IVR systems is getting lost in the debate.

  3. Bob Acker

    on the subject of Bullshit, “your call is important to us” is often the canonical example, as in the following two books (people who buy one buy the other):

    Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit (Hardcover)
    by Laura Penny (Author)
    Hardcover: 256 pages
    Publisher: Crown (July 12, 2005)
    Language: English
    ISBN: 1400081033

    On Bullshit (Hardcover)
    by Harry G. Frankfurt (Author)
    Hardcover: 80 pages
    Publisher: Princeton University Press (January 10, 2005)
    Language: English
    ISBN: 0691122946

    I appreciate your comments on IVRs having spent many nights from 1988 until 1995 working on them.

    Bob “A”


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