Don't keep me hanging on the telephone

Don’t keep me hanging on the telephoneCompanies tell us our calls are valued – but when they leave us on hold for an eternity this isn’t very convincing. So it’s not surprising that the urge to throw a phone across the room while navigating your way around an automated telephone system is quite common - one false move and you’re cut off.

Perhaps that is why the recent TV programme Richard Wilson On Hold, broadcast on Channel 4 struck such a chord with the nation and gave voice to our frustrations with automation. According to the programme, more and more of our lives are being controlled by these systems because they are cheap to run. Which means they are here to stay.

The cost of an automated call is around 37p per transaction, whereas an average contact centre transaction costs £3 and can rise as high as £7 per transaction. So, it’s obvious why organisations choose this alternative.

Fortunately, some companies are fully aware of the problems faced by customers and are trying to address the issues that drive us mad. BT has conducted a survey, The Autonomous Customer, in order to understand the ways in which customers’ demands on organisations are changing.

Interestingly, the research found that 58 per cent of customers were quite positive about self- service systems - but only when they are easy to use. And this, according to Dr Nicola Millard, customer experience futurologist at BT, is the crux of the matter. If it is easy to use people are happy, because they feel in control of the situation.

It’s a matter of good design

Dr Millard believes that many self-service options are poorly designed and just not thought through.

If you get stuck or have a problem with an automated system you should have the option of talking to a human being. But this doesn’t always happen and this is when stress levels rise.

“Companies don’t necessarily test systems enough,” said Dr Millard. “It is essential to test systems on a regular basis on a wide range of customers (including those with visual, articulation and hearing problems) and then deploy them appropriately. And it is also essential to provide customers with choice.”

On hold

Get it wrong and customers can get stranded in on hold hell. During the TV programme one customer was left hanging on the telephone for 53 minutes. One problem with being on hold is that, often, you will have no idea of how many people are ahead of you in the phone queue. This makes it difficult to judge.'

The problem with being on hold is that you have no idea how many people are ahead of you in a phone queue, making it difficult to judge whether it’s worth waiting.

When you finally get through you also want to talk to someone who can actually help. This is where call steering comes in – if it is designed well, it should ensure that you get through to an appropriate expert.

Natural language voice recognition is increasingly used in this way. But as the actor Richard Wilson showed in the show, this can easily be disrupted by background noise and regional accents.

Dr Millard offers reassurance: “Voice recognisers are much better than they used to be, but it depends on how much investment you put into them as to how accurate they are. You are never going to get 100 per cent accuracy, because even we don’t always understand everything accurately when we talk.

“We often need to ask clarification questions in conversations. However if we can teach increasingly intelligent, self-learning systems how to ask better questions and present them with a wide range of accents they are much more accurate. Technology is evolving,” she said.

It seems that, despite Richard Wilson’s bad experiences, people are happy to use automated systems when they are quick and easy to use, get them to their goal and allow them some control over the situation.