Posts Tagged ‘automation’

We *Really Are* Happy to Serve You…

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 – that of someone who records telephone systems daily – I was thrilled when Emily and I were able to coordinate a time to have a short interview and drill deeper into this whole conundrum of customer service automation – at first, intended to be a way to simplify the interactions between companies and their customers; now 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 Yellin had to say about the customer service experience and ways that companies need to – once again – point their focus towards what best serves their customers:

AS: Emily, to what degree should a company use their automated greeting to impart, educate, inform, and generally take up the customer’s time? I voice some greetings which literally go on for upwards of 5-10 minutes, in which they discuss their company’s history, how their widgets are manufactured, and what makes *their* widgets better than their competitors – all before the caller has even heard which options they 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 a good thing 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 half, and the minute you started to say something, he or she said: ‘Oh hang on second’ and walked away, that would not be considered to be socially correct.” And so, I think it’s a good rule for companies to think of these interactions as personal and 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 their phone system, they might want to re-examine what their motives are. 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 website, I’m not going to be calling your  customer service line. I think that’s a good example of companies that really are not thinking about things from their customer’s point 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 to be 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 of using the IVR to create the illusion of a bigger company?

 EY: I think 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 may 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 towards a “real person” sound?

EY:  People don’t like to hear robotic voices. But when it comes to IVR’s, less is more, and thinking about it too much and working too hard to make it human is kind of a waste of time. I think 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 towards 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. I think 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 it 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 if you if it’s revolutionary or not. All I’m trying to do is be a really pure voice for the customer so that 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 in 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 I think 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.

Next blog article: I’ll be writing about the effectiveness — or lack of — in social networking.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment!


We’re Everywhere!

You tell her who’s boss!”

The encouraging support came  from behind me, while self-checking some groceries recently. I looked surprised at the clerk who oversees all of the self-check lanes at my local Safeway, and he gleefully continued: “You sure told HER!”

Apparently  — like most other customers who have resigned ourselves to being our own cashiers (and as a sidenote: twenty years ago, if someone had told me that sometime in the near future I would happily ring through and bag my own groceries, I would have told them they were bonkers) — I was actually answering the automated voice who guides consumers through the sometimes mystifying process of scanning our own groceries. I was responding to her specific prompt, in which she says — a little too enthusiastically, as though this is a monumental idea which just occurred to her —  “HAVE YOU SCANNED YOUR CLUB CARD??!” I — a professional voice talent, and quite an apt mimic, matched her intonation precisely as I responded: “NO, I haven’t! But I will — when I’m done! Thank you!”

You would think that myself — so frequently on the *other* side of the mic; recording automated systems which undoubtedly must frustrate other human beings, would be somewhat more accepting and accommodating to following the voice prompts which another voice talent has recorded — after all, we’re in the same line of work, and who better to sympathize with the unforgiving onslaught of monotonous instructions which the customer is bombarded with that someone who creates them herself?

And yet, there I am — expressing frustration with her for simply articulating a prompt that’s merely programmed into the system at a prescribed sequence in the process. I find it hard to hide my ire when she declares: “Unknown item in the bagging area,” when all I’ve done is place my shopping bag there for loading. (Doesn’t she know the difference between a pre-paid-for recycled shopping bag and a rutabaga?)

Maybe what sets me apart from other shoppers is that I *know* — better than most — the “she” *is* an actual human being who voiced the files which eventually became automated sound segments which play in a mechanical way…it takes an actual *person* to voice them — which the standard consumer can easily forget (or never even give thought to), and they are more readily able to dismiss her as a “computer voice.” Even prompts which are concatenated (put into a sequence) via a text-to speech utility, are initially voiced by an actual live person. When I pointed out to the Safeway supervisor that I *am* actually one of these people who voices this kind of thing, the irony of me getting snippy with the system wasn’t lost on him.

Voice talent are everywhere. Any time you encounter pre-programmed instructions “speaking” to you, they are the evidence of a voice talent’s work — and they’re often in non-traditional situations instead of the usual instances where one might hear voice talent (TV, Radio, Telephony.)

While not yet the voice of an automated grocery check-out system, I have voiced many automated prompts which are ultimately designed to facilitate transactions and make life easier — that’s the goal, anyhow. Automated banking systems, public transit stop announcements, kiosks, GPS systems, elevator floor announcements, hotel wake-up calls, parking facility ticket machines, automated taxicab change-dispensing systems, talking piggy banks  — even the talking prototype for the Rhoomba vacuum which runs on Asterisk — I’ve been the voice behind automation in many different forms and for a vast audience. While fully aware that most of the instructions which I’ve voiced simply go by, obeyed but largely unnoticed, I’m all too aware that I must sometimes generate a lot of “talkback” — much like my “dialogue” with the grocery store automaton that day.

My first experience with a GPS system was when I rented a car in Phoenix years ago to attend a convention — I, at first, articulated out loud — upon hearing the female GPS voice’s initial instructions — “Well, you’re not so great! How’d you end up getting *this* job?” She proceeded to get me lost. Rather severely. Like, “Welcome to Montana” kind of lost.  I was  in a snit about not being the voice of Garmin and disregarded her recommended twists and turns — I soon realized that the trip went smoother when I paid attention to “Trixie’s” directions (even though I eventually deferred to her, I had to diminish her by giving her a cocktail-waitress name) but couldn’t help but giggle at her frustrated tone if I didn’t take a sanctioned turn: she sounds slightly exasperated and says: “(Sigh!) REcalculating…” Another favorite is my Bluetooth utility for my car, with a British-accented female voice who sounds like she’s saying “Bugger off!” when she’s saying “Power off!” No, YOU Power off!

Of course, it needs to be pointed out that the prompts have a life of their own — they’re just following the sequence dictated by the computer which runs it; we, as the voice talent, are rendering absolutely no judgement when you entered the code for bananas but didn’t leave them long enough on the scale for weighing; we’re not actually admonishing you when your pin numbers do not match, and there’s no actual commentary behind the pre-programmed message which might tell you that you’re in your overdraft or that you have insufficient funds for the transaction you were planning to do. It may sound very much like another human being is getting on your case — but that’s just a construct of “personalizing” a system which is aurally-driven rather than visual.

And when the Park n’ Ride ticket dispenser issues my ticket when parking at the airport, I’m known for thanking “him” with a hearty “Row J it is! And thank YOU, sir!”

I figure he gets enough abuse from everyone else.

Join me in two week’s time (remember: the blog is now bi-weekly) for an article that’s needed to be written for quite some time: many newer users of Asterisk are hazy about the file specs, the optimal settings, and the basic care and feeding of Asterisk prompts — with the help of Rod Montgomery of Digium, I’ll be writing a much-needed primer on “Asterisk 101”!

As always, thanks for reading, and your feedback is always welcome!

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world, including platforms for Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Sprint, Bell Canada, Hawai’ian Telcom, and Asterisk.  Her website is