'Are you being served?'

Oct. 1, 2001
It's a time-honored tradition in the journalistic world: the one-on-one interview, preferably face-to-face, but failing that, by telephone. Unfortunately, modern technology makes setting up and conducting interviews by telephone well nigh impossible.

It's a time-honored tradition in the journalistic world—the one-on-one interview, preferably face-to-face, but failing that, by telephone. Unfortunately, modern technology makes setting up and conducting interviews by telephone well nigh impossible. I refer, of course, to the much-hated interactive voice-response (IVR) systems that seem to be ubiquitous these days. These are interactive on the system's terms, that is, not on yours. They might as well be called "interactive voice-defeating" systems because they are clearly intended to ensure that you don't reach a human voice—ever. Let me give you a hypothetical example drawn from bitter experience.

"Thank you for calling the Ace Widget Company, the world's leading manufacturer of left-handed widgets. Your call may be recorded for quality-assurance purposes. Please listen carefully as our menus have changed recently. If you are using a touch-tone phone, press 1 now. If you know the extension you are calling, please dial it now. To dial by name, press the first four letters of the person's last name followed by the pound sign. For sales and support, press 2. For technical support, press 3. For investor relations, press 4. For public relations, press 5. For other options, press 6. To repeat this menu, press 7 . . ."

Notice the intimidation factor, "your call may be recorded." You can almost hear the lawyer saying, "You have the right to remain silent." Notice the dumbing down: "Please listen carefully . . ." Notice, too, that the initial menu does not give you the option of going to a live person. You can try pressing zero desperately but all that's likely to give you is yet another of those infuriating responses, "All our customer-care specialists are busy now; please hold and someone will be with you shortly." As if they really cared for their customers. What you are reaching is probably a massive call center in Fargo, ND, where the "customer-care specialists" are housed in tiny cubicles like so many chickens and are paid minimum wages to shield the Ace Widget Company from its customers. Is this the face Ace Widget should be showing to the world? I think not.

Of course, some fancy IVR systems attempt to mitigate your pain of waiting by forcing you to listen either to "Your Hundred Banal Pop Tunes You Never Want to Hear Again" or to tediously long commercials for the product you've just bought that refuses to work as promised. There are a couple of variants here: "The waiting time for a customer care specialist is approximately 45 minutes," or "You are 25th in line for the next available customer-care specialist." Clearly these are subterfuges designed to get you to give up. So you do. Note, too, that IVR time bears no relation to real time. Watching grass grow is more exciting—and probably more rewarding.

And have you tried to do business recently with your friendly local phone company? Their IVR systems make every attempt to get you off their backs and onto their web sites. From the company's point of view, this makes eminent good sense. Some studies have suggested that getting a real person to answer a support call can cost $10, whereas a query answered by an IVR system can cost about $0.50. A web site answer costs even less. And don't even think of trying to get a live person at your long-distance carrier.

Not all IVR systems are guaranteed to raise your blood pressure. My local pharmacy has an IVR system that does just one thing and that it does very well—it allows the user to refill a prescription with a minimum of questions and the questions are exactly those the pharmacist would use in a live call.

And, fortunately, PennWell believes the personal touch is very important. Call the main number (603-891-0123) of PennWell's Advanced Technology Division in Nashua, NH, during regular business hours and you will get the helpful voice of Marlene Bush or one of her substitutes. Marlene is an expert at finding the right person for you to talk to. Of course, when Marlene puts you through to my extension, chances are you'll get my voice mail . . .

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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