Please Continue to Hold... and Hold... or Text, Facebook Us

Automated Phone Bots Really Are Designed to Be Bad, but Relief Is on the Way

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Credit: Illustration by Viktor Koen

It's one thing as a consumer to go through the frustrating experience of calling for customer service and getting lost in a maze of "Press one for..." and "press two for..." and inevitably being sent to the wrong extension, misunderstood by a bot, or simply cut off and forced to repeat the process. But it's another to encounter it as a reporter trying to get in touch with companies that make these so-called interactive voice-response systems. Each request made to speak with a living, breathing human for this story was met with a recorded instruction to leave a voicemail.

In short, IVRs systems practice what they preach. "We purposely designed it to have bad customer service," said Joe Gagnon, chief strategist of Aspect, a Phoenix-based company which markets customer-service solutions such as IVRs. "We made it bad on purpose."

It's a strange statement considering that, according to Frost and Sullivan, IVR systems globally will sell $2.6 billion worth of product by 2018 and that an Oracle study reports 67% of consumers will stop doing business with a company following a poor customer service experience. Another 86% said they would be willing to pay more money for a better-quality service.

But Mr. Gagnon said that IVRs weren't designed with the consumer in mind: "They were designed for effectiveness." In IVR's early days, for example, "You would call a doctor and press one for billing, and then you would speak to someone. That's changed. Now we ask for more information. So we kept adding and adding menus until they were no longer designed for effectiveness."

Fundamental shift
But a fundamental shift in consumer behavior is bringing change to the industry. As more consumers are turning to online chat and social media, IVRs are beginning to adapt. Within the next three months, Aspect will be unveiling a new technology called integrated text response that will also operate within Facebook and Twitter messaging systems.

As the name suggests, a person would text something like "call me" and receive a call from a customer service agent. Or, the person would text a specific question and get a response almost immediately, said Mr. Gagnon, whose texting-service customers include a top three wireless carrier and a top five auto marketer.

That's designed to thwart callers from hitting the boiling point by hanging on the line with a recorded voice popping in occasionally telling them that "Your business is important to us; please continue to hold." So how long will one likely hold before hitting that point? About five minutes, Mr. Gagnon said.

Sometimes automated call centers use tricks to keep a person engaged during that waiting time so to not lose the caller. In a recent chat with an IVR, after the recorded voice took information from the caller, the silence was filled by the sound of typing as if the bot was actually manually entering the information.

"The reason for all that typing sound is because people abandon calls if they hear dead air, if they hear silence," Mr. Gagnon said. "You have to give them some feedback. That clicking noise [you hear] is the amount of time it took the database to find the answer without making you feel like you waited long."

"People perceive silence to be four times longer than it is," said Jim Mathis, president of Succasunna, N.J.-based On Hold Marketing and Communications, which handpicks "hold" music for companies like Marriott hotels and Darden restaurants. "So cellphones have been tremendous for our business because when people don't hear anything they think they have been disconnected."

Sinatra or The Beatles?
People become impatient after hearing complete silence for 30 seconds, Mr. Mathis said. Add music, and that time goes up to 45 seconds. If you include music and a relatable message, a person will patiently wait 80 seconds before they notice how long they've been placed on hold.

But there is a catch to the type of music a business picks. "Sometimes we get a business owner who says, 'I love Frank Sinatra. I want to play Sinatra as my hold music," Mr. Mathis said. "But then we ask 'What's your demographic?' and and they say, '20-year-olds.' Guess what? Twenty-year-olds don't care about Frank Sinatra."

Due to licensing cost and regulations, playing popular, well known music can also be costly.

For example, Apple plays music from the Beatles when its customers are placed on hold. And each time Apple plays that music they must pay royalties. As Mr. Mathis said, "That makes sense for Apple, but it doesn't make sense for the guy who owns a small Italian restaurant."

Mr. Gagnon said that Aspect, whose clients include half of all Fortune 500 companies, will be the only company to offer a texting-based customer service option for companies when it debuts. The tech will also be integrated with Facebook and Twitter, so consumers can "text" their messages on either platform's direct-messaging system. "We see text and direct messaging as the same," he said.

"It is not O.K. to force people through a hierarchy through a menu that is nonproductive," Mr. Gagnon said. "For a long time people did not know there is an alternative, but now the pressure is on to find consumer solutions that give you better customer service."

Call me back, O.K.?
One of the more popular solutions has been scheduled callbacks. Instead of waiting on hold, customers are told when they will be called back by the company.

"Customers are not tolerating the stiff arm they get from IVRs any longer," Mr. Gagnon said. "A scheduled callback puts the control into the consumer's hands. They can tell a company when it's convenient for them and not the other way around."

Praful K. Shah, senior VP of another IVR provider, RingCentral, said traditional systems such as IVRs aren't going anywhere, but noted that consumer expectations have changed since technology has improved.

"Our expectations have changed and our tolerance for time, or waiting has also changed," Mr. Shah said. "More and more people just want to get it done. They just want to go to the internet and press a button and get it done."

He said simple IVR systems like the ones for small businesses can run a few thousand dollars, while complex call centers such as the ones airlines use are "a few million dollars."

"If you are a large airline you are talking about a multi-million dollar call center," Mr. Shah said. "You have to deploy a lot of [customer service reps] on a global scale. This is a very large and expensive process."

Mr. Shah could not provide specifics about how much money IVR systems can save businesses, but said the most expensive cost are human beings. "The savings in using online chat customer service is definitely there. You use less human capital," he said. "Companies are always trying to use human capital to max efficiency."

In control
As for the psychology of the whole business, Tom Meyvis, professor of marketing at the Stern School of Business at New York University, says it is likely there isn't "too much research going on" when developing IVRs. "The large aim of this business is to control cost," he said. "That's why we don't have live operators right away."

But Mr. Meyvis does believe some thought went into IVRs.

"Some things are done to increase the caller's sense of control," he said. "It is interactive, that is why they have you 'press one,' but there are so many steps now that it is annoying. There is a limit to how many buttons they can get you to push."