Machines must but people might

Talking with a potential client the other day, a household brand name in the consumer market, was very illuminating. I have spent most of my professional career working with B2B companies and this was a very different conversation.

packaging machine

The topic of conversation was the use of automation in call centres. That is, using technologies such as IVR to replace, or rather supplement, human agents. My contention was that they can be positively detrimental  to customer satisfaction if badly implemented. Often they have too many options, and are difficult for callers to understand or navigate successfully. This leads to frustration and negative emotions – that ultimately get landed onto the poor unsuspecting agent when the caller is finally connected to a human being.

Whatever the initial motivation for making the call, the overlay of anger, confusion and bewilderment only exacerbates the problem in the caller’s mind and complicates the agent’s task. This leads to extended call times and worse success rates than without the IVR in the first place.

The counter-argument from this senior call centre manager went something like this. IVR might seem to degrade the caller’s interaction, by postponing the direct contact with a agent, but it does a great job of routing the caller to the right queue, for the right team to deal with the issue/question. And that a lot of time and effort is spent in designing menus and options which minimise the risk of confusion and clearly help the caller through an initial screening.

Suppressing a chuckle about this seeming disconnect with the real-world experiences that people talk about, I suggested that actually the real benefit for her company was a reduction in costs – deploying the technology being cheaper than employing people. She did not agree.

So far,so familiar.

What intrigued me was a specific phrase she used to describe the difference between using software rather than people to answer callers. She said “machines must answer the call in 3 rings – because that is what they are programmed to do. But people only might answer the call that quickly”. That did not strike me as a particularly strong reason to automate that part of the interaction, until I discovered that Speed of Answering had been a key metric for some years. Using IVR improved their results dramatically!

Yes, we need measurements, but not when it drives behaviours that distort the relationship between customer and supplier. Now, more than ever, we cannot afford to lose customers.



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