I had the good fortune to be able to persuade Emily Yellin, internationally-recognized customer service expert, to agree to be interviewed for this blog. I loved her keynote address at SpeechTEK two years ago, and devoured her best-selling book, Your Call is (Not That) Important To Us.
In addition to being an author and in-demand speaker, Emily was a longtime contributor to The New York Times and has also written for Time, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, Newsweek, Smithsonian Magazine, and other publications.
Being an enthusiast of streamlining the whole caller experience from my perspective as someone who records telephone systems daily, I was thrilled when Emily and I were able to have a short interview and drill deeper into this whole conundrum of customer service automation.
At first, automation was intended as a way to simplify the interactions between companies and their customers. Now, it’s often a sticking point in the customer experience. What was at one time a measure to organize and sort callers before they got to a human, IVR’s have become a completely isolating turnkey vortex where people are literally “minding the store” by themselves.
Here’s what Emily had to say about the customer service experience and ways that companies need to once again point their focus toward what best serves customers:
AS: Emily, to what degree should a company use an automated greeting to impart, educate, inform, and generally take up the customer’s time? I voice some greetings that literally go on for upwards of 5-10 minutes, in which they discuss the company history, how its widgets are manufactured, and what makes *its* widgets better than its competitor’s, all before the caller has even heard which options she can choose from. How much information is too much? How much of the customer’s time should be sacrificed to this end?
EY: I probably haven’t thought about it in the depth that you have. Generally, though, it’s good to assume that any of the rules that apply to interacting with people in person also apply on the phone, and certainly apply when you’re on an IVR system.
I spoke to an IVR designer who put it this way, and I thought it was really good. He said: “If you went to party and somebody walked up to you and spoke to you non-stop for a minute and a half, and the minute you started to say something, he said: ‘Oh hang on a second’ and walked away, that would not be considered socially correct.” It’s a good rule for companies to think of these interactions as personal, look at how you would act in person, and replicate that. Most companies just look at it from just their own point of view, where they have a message they want to convey to the customer, whether the customer wants to hear it or not. That is not an effective or considerate way to design an IVR system.
AS: How about using the on-hold system for that purpose? At least they’re filling the customer’s time on hold with something content-rich and somewhat informative…
EY: If the company feels some great need to do that on its phone system, it might want to re-examine its motives. In this world now, we are all time-starved, and the time of the customers calling is just as important as the time of your employees. It’s really important to recognize that the people calling in aren’t getting paid for the time they’re spending on the phone. Your employees are. And so, I, as a customer—and I know most other people—value efficiency and consideration above all else. That makes it really important for companies to think long and hard and really put themselves in the shoes of their customers and say: “If I were calling a company, would I want to hear all this?” I think we’ve all been in the position where we don’t want to. Nobody cares about your company history as much as you do. Honestly. If I want to know about your company history, I’m going to call your PR people or go to your Web site; I’m not going to be calling your customer service line. That’s a good example of companies that really are not thinking about things from their customers’ points of view; they are only thinking about things from their own point of view. And we all know that that’s not a good stance to have in any relationship.
AS: I’ve had clients who deliberately make up fake mailboxes or departments to make their company appear bigger. I even made it one of the “15 Commandments of IVR” on the Digium blogsite as what *not* to do. What is your opinion on using the IVR to create the illusion of a bigger company?
EY: Anything where you’re not being honest with your customers is not a good policy. I’ll just keep saying this: anything that’s solely driven from your point of view—from the company’s point of view—without thinking about the customer as someone who’s intelligent and equal is just wrong.
AS: In my last blog, I wrote about the “casual,” informal tone that a lot of IVR’s take on now and how it could compromise the accuracy of speech recognition utilities. Technicalities aside, what is your opinion of IVR moving away from the robotic “telephone lady” sound and edging more toward a “real person” sound?
EY: People don’t like to hear robotic voices. But when it comes to IVRs, less is more, and thinking about it too much and working too hard to make it human is kind of a waste of time. You should just transfer people to a human being as quickly as possible. Messages with lots of words are frustrating and annoying. So three or four options, and one or two times that you have to press something, that’s about it. Anything else is lazy on the company’s part.
AS: Automation of phone systems is moving toward a completely turnkey approach, and using one doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to have contact with an actual live human the way it used to. Should IVR be thought of as a replacement for the live agent?
EY: You need to be able to get to a human being at any time and be upfront about this and remind your callers. I see the value in something like Julie for Amtrak, who I wrote about. But to employ an IVR system solely to save money, and not to think about the repercussions of how it can go wrong and all the ways people can respond is a problem. When you ask a question, what you want in response on your IVR system needs to be considered when the system is designed. Companies have to spend a whole lot more time thinking this through.
When IVRs were initially employed, that lack of care is what made people so mad. So if you’re still going to present it that way, you’re going to make people mad. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try; no matter what. I understand the importance of having some sort of gate-keeper when people first call to direct them generally in the right direction, and that makes sense for the customer. But once it starts not making sense for the customer and only making sense for the company, that’s when you have to stop and reconsider. At all turns, you have to ask: “is this what’s best for our customer?” I can understand the argument that if IVRs save money and they direct people to the right people immediately, that’s best for customer because they’re saving money that would go into the cost of their product or service. But what I don’t understand is when IVRs start asking the customer to work really hard just to get a something basic done. Then that becomes a way you’re going to lose customers, and the long-term effects of that are far-reaching.
AS: Is this revolutionary thinking for companies with whom you consult, or for your audiences when you speak?
EY: I maintain my stance as an outsider, and I can’t tell you if it’s revolutionary or not. All I’m trying to do is be a really pure voice for the customer so people in companies don’t lose sight of what they’re doing this for and the meaning behind what they’re doing. And so, in everything that’s done in customer service, the more that it can be humanized and not be de-humanizing the better. Obviously, IVRs really, literally, *are* de-humanizing because they’re not human beings. So anything you do that de-humanizes the interaction, the relationship with your customer, you have to be really, really careful. I don’t think that’s revolutionary. What is revolutionary is forcing low-quality and high-frustration IVRs on people. I think that’s pretty revolutionary, because it’s throwing away the humanity that is the point of any kind of relationship, either business or personal.
When you look at the history of how customer service evolved, it evolved from the receptionist position, and so its status, or lack of status, within companies has come from those origins. One thing I try to say as strongly as I can is that it’s in everyone’s best interest to recognize the real value of the customer service function in your company. If you get it out of the ghetto of your corporate structure and make it front and center, you’re going to have something most companies don’t have: a real focus on your customer and what your customer’s needs are.
What if the head of customer service were paid second only to the CEO? How would your company change? And instead of saying “we’ve got to clear it through legal” or “we’ve got to clear it through finance.” They would say” What’s customer service going think of this?” That would be a revolution. That would be a change that would be very good for everyone, including for the bottom line of the company.”
Emily gives absolutely common-sense insight in an extraordinary way. She reminds companies where their focus should be: on the customer. Automated ways of “sorting” customers or creating a more turnkey aspect to a business must never be implemented at the cost of human frustration or the alienation of your customers.
Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, having voiced platforms for Sprint, Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Bell Canada, Vonage, Twitterfone, Hawaiian Telcom, and the Asterisk Open-Source PBX. Her Web site is www.theivrvoice.com.