Commentary by Jonah Bloom

Bell Canada Thinks It Has Solved Call Center Hell

Marketers Must Wake Up to Fact that Phone Fury Hurts Their Brands

By Published on .

In the first circle you are told to press the number of the next circle you need to select. In the second you receive the same instruction but none of the described
menu items sound quite like the one you want. In the third circle you realize you've just pressed the wrong digit but can't go back.

In the fourth you start frantically mashing the zero key in the hope of getting an operator. In the fifth you are put on interminable hold. Finally you enter a sixth, in which you get to speak to a human being who cannot assist you and suggests you go back to the first menu. Yes, hell is a call center.

Lucifer's wings
OK, it's not the same as being frozen neck deep in ice while Lucifer's wings fan you with impotence and ignorance, but it is really annoying. A Google search throws up over a million matches for the phrase "call-center hell." If you've never cursed a call center you are either: a) Job, or b) so rich you never have to call a phone company, bank or utility yourself.

Such companies spend hundreds of millions every year, branding themselves and their products. Some are even conscious of the need to create a good retail experience for customers.

Yet, when it comes to the call center, systems are often either badly thought out or plain inadequate, and there are too few, poorly trained staff. Seeing call centers as overhead rather than opportunity,

they seem to ignore their impact on the brand. And almost all fail to integrate this customer experience into their marketing plans.

Voice recognition
Bell Canada thinks it's different. In 2002 the telecom giant switched from handling customers' calls with seven layers of keypad menus to using interactive-voice-recognition (IVR) technology designed to get people where they want to go in fewer stages.

If you deal regularly with call centers -- if you've called American Airlines flight information, for example -- you may have come across IVR: It entails slightly stilted, but usually productive, conversation with a computer.

Meet Emily
To try to make that experience slightly less disconcerting, Bell Canada aimed to make its computer feel human. Working with voice-automation firm Nuance, it constructed a persona for the system, calling it Emily. (She is 28, grew up in New Brunswick, has a B.A. in history, and so on.) Most importantly, she is available 24-7, is clear, calm and projects eagerness to serve, an ethos that Bell Canada sees as one of its key brand attributes.

Emily was cast and recorded to match the persona. Importantly, Bell and Nuance also spent a lot of time

working on scripts and menus that would ensure callers felt their needs were being met.

In my test Emily worked. She's quick, she doesn't roadblock (you can always go back) and the moment you use a certain word, "cellphone" for example, Emily takes you to the relevant place. Bell Canada customers agree: Complaints are down 79% following IVR implementation. Misdirected calls dropped from around 3 million a year to 2.4 million a year and as a result the company claims productivity savings of $6.6 million in 2003.

Boost for brands
A recent Harris Interactive study of 326 call-center users found that speech systems generally are considered preferable to keypad entry. Additionally, companies employing speech interfaces reaped brand-perception benefits, often being described as progressive, confident and innovative.

Of course, IVR isn't perfect. One Bell Canada customer told me Emily was great until you get angry, when her "calm" voice became a nail on a blackboard. But, at the very least, the company has recognized call centers affect the brand. That's a good few steps ahead of those that spend millions advertising themselves as friendly and approachable, while sending many of their customers straight to 1-800-INFERNO.

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