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Your Voice Prompts are Prompting Me to Hate Your Company

There is very little in the business world that is more offensive or frustrating than "automated phone service" or voice-prompt menus. The vast majority of these systems are misguided, abused, and abusive. They are mazes without exits. They may have originated as efficiency tools, but they have deteriorated into what is essentially a war of robots against humans. And they have the ability to turn customers against companies -- even companies that do everything else well.

I thought it might be useful (or at least entertaining) to dissect a typical voice-system "tree" and examine what those prompts really mean to your victims -- ahem, customers:

Robot: "Your call is very important to us."

Victim: "No it's not, or we wouldn't be starting out this way."

Robot: "Please continue to hold, your call is very important to us."

Victim: "Um, we already covered that five minutes ago, so I have to assume my call is actually less and less important to you."

Robot: "Did you know you can get product information and answers to many common questions on our website?"

Victim: "Why, yes, I did! But I wanted to call you, that's why I'm on the phone and not my computer."

Robot: "Please enter your account number."

Victim: "Why? There is a 94.7% chance you will ask me for it again if/when a human being picks up."

Robot: "One of our customer service professionals is providing excellent service to another caller and will be with you as soon as possible."

Victim: (Soda now coming through nose).

Robot: "I'm sorry, but zero is not a valid option." (Returns to beginning of entire menu.)

Victim: "What? Isn't zero the universal option for operator? I need to speak with someone!"

Robot: "I'm sorry, I don't recognize your entry. Ending call now, goodbye." (Click)

Victim: "Did you just hang up on me?"

Of course I realize that having a human operator answering phones is a rarity these days (though sooooo refreshing when it happens), and some form of automation is a necessity for most businesses. But there are ways to use it for good and not for evil.
  • Above all, before listing a single option, offer callers the chance to "press zero to reach an operator at any time" and have that zero go directly to a human being without further delay.
  • If anyone is still listening to your menu after that, keep it to the bare minimum. Don't get swept up in your own technical capabilities or cleverness. Minimize choices, make them clear, and make sure that they lead to the desired result. Don't trap your customer in a recorded dead-end with no way out, and in the name of all that's holy, don't have your robot say "sorry" and disconnect them. Ever. I can't believe that this actually happens. It makes me want to puke.
At Skooba Design, we do have an automated greeting. It picks up after less than one ring. It immediately offers the opportunity to dial anyone directly or push zero for an operator. Then it has two simple options and a company directory. No matter what a caller does, she is never more than one button away from a live person who is absolutely able to help. If the caller does reach someone's voicemail (we are a small company and at times many of our lines are busy at once), she can press zero and a loud central ringer will make sure everyone in the office knows there's a call. Someone will get it. It is virtually unheard of for a caller to not be able to reach a happy, helpful person at our office during business hours, but if she does leave a message, you can bet it will be returned lightning fast. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Have any good menu options I missed, or voicemail hell stories to add? I'd love to hear them. Your comments will be answered in the order in which they were received.

Sidenote: Check out GetHuman, a somewhat-confusing but interesting website that offers the voice systems of over 2,000 companies -- along with known shortcuts to reaching live operators in the shortest amount of time.
(Flickr photo by Atilla1000)

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