Telephone Banking

I recently witnessed my mother in law pay her first bill online, after gradually getting comfortable with her new iPad — a gadget which I was convinced she would eschew and only use — if it all — to play Sudoku or Scrabble. I saw, at first, fear at the idea of her releasing her confidential information into cyberspace. Then came the skepticism – that the payment would actually go to the correct source; that it wouldn’t just “float around” aimlessly and she wouldn’t have documentation or “credit” of her actually making the payment. When proof of the payment instantly showed up in a brief check of her bank balance in another screen, then came the inevitable sense of amazement — that all this was done without leaving the comfort of her lounger, and that it didn’t involve a physical trip to the bank, the lining up, and the lag-time for the payment to register through a teller-processed transaction. She’s sold on the process — as we all are.

Banking via telephone or online has opened up whole new vistas for the banking public who are now so used to being able to conduct business without the constraints of the bank’s business hours, we can scarcely imagine life otherwise. Want to check on the balance of your mortgage during a 3 AM insomnia bout? Ever get that 10 PM sniggling realization that the Visa bill needed to be paid before the sun set that day? No worries, now that we’re not at the mercy of when the banks have tellers scheduled to be cheerfully roosting at their kiosks.

With this accessibility comes a sad resignation that there is a certain amount of “hoops” which we must obediently jump through in order to have this “24-hour-at-your-fingertips” type of ease — and nowhere are the hoops as plentiful or frustrating as with telephone banking. We sacrifice the personal touch by having to be willing to navigate through countless steps to verify who we are; to authenticate that we actually have access to the account in question; and that you and you alone are authorized to make any changes.

The number of steps by which this information gathering/authentication is accomplished is key to customer compliance and even goes a long way to enhancing — or destroying – client satisfaction. Limiting and reducing the number of steps (or “levels”) that a customer has to navigate through in order to accomplish what they called about is *key* — and is the basis for the lion’s share of frustration encountered when trying to do relatively basic transactions. The fewer the steps; the less redundancy involved; and the simplest method used to “sort” customers into the right “department”. Why are they asking me to input my PIN number into the keypad — sometimes multiple times — *and then* the live agent asks for it again? Needless levels. Why, when they invite you to make a selection from a menu of possible options, it’s not uncommon to find that *none* of the options seem to speak to the reason why you called? And why, when you clearly intone a possibility which doesn’t happen to parse with their voice recognition utility, you’re shuttled off to a department which couldn’t *be* farther from the option you actually need (you say “MasterCard Balance” and the automaton comes back with: “OK. I think you said….SAFETY DEPOSIT BOXES. I’m transferring you now!”

The tone of most automated banking IVR systems — traditionally very straightforward and almost devoid of emotion — are now attempting to re-create the intimate, one-on-one feel of a customer-standing-at-the-window scenario: voice talent who are hired to voice telephone banking systems are given the cue to sound more accessible, candid, conversational — almost informal. Not unlike a relaxed, slightly playful bank CSR, bank IVR’s are moving away from the straightforward, yet cold: “Please re-enter your PIN” and more towards: “Sure. I can do that for you — no problem. I’m just going to get your PIN number off you one more time….whenever you’re ready.”

While I personally, as a voice talent, prefer the more relaxed, “human” tone of the latter example, it may not have its place in all situations: I am the voice of National Bank of Kuwait, where a certain amount of formality seemed more in fitting with the geography and the demographics of a middle eastern bank; an informal tone would be more readily embraced by Western financial institutions. There’s also a widely believed theory within the voice recognition community that there is a greater margin for error in matching up the customer’s spoken selection with a viable choice when the customer has taken on the “casual, relaxed” tone of the IVR — and they *will*, without meaning to — follow the lead of the IVR in demeanor and tone. A conversational, friend-like IVR means the customer answers in kind — and not always with the satisfying accuracy as if they had echoed back their choice — in a staccato monotone – in the tone of a more traditional IVR.

New technologies in voice recognition can even enable firms to detect if a customer is unhappy or angry — the area of Emotive Voice Recognition has huge capabilities and potential to flag customer frustration at the outset and transfer the caller to agents specifically trained to handle such callers. It can be argued that if callers were simply and efficiently managed to be begin with, a specialized “holding area” and specific “treatment” for the frazzled would be unnecessary.

In no other area of our lives can there be a stronger argument for simplicity of access than when it comes to our hand-earned money; and any system in place which acts as a gateway between us and our money — and  has the intention of making transactions easier; ensuring accuracy in our financial dealings, and ensuring accessibility to our lifeblood – had better deliver. An easy, straight, uncomplicated line from us to our money is all we ask.

Next week, I’m looking forward to blogging about CJSW — the University of Calgary student-run radio station where I got my first taste of being behind the mic.

Thanks for reading!

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