‘Press P for a real live person right now’

A few days ago I spent an entire day on the phone trying to reach various accounting departments to sort out my current crop of bills.

Th Jbairstow

By Jeff Bairstow


A few days ago I spent an entire day on the phone trying to reach various accounting departments to sort out my current crop of bills. Could I get hold of a live person? I could not. My hit rate was about 3% or 4%. It was a painful process, to say the least. And don’t get me started on people who never call back.

You are also probably only too painfully aware that 99% of businesses today use some type of voice-response and/or speech-recognition system to deal with inquiries from customers. A few of these systems can handle rudimentary sales tasks quite efficiently, but most are very crudely designed and are a major pain in the rear to use. That’s because too many systems are developed for the benefit of the company deploying the system and so the designers pay little heed to satisfying the urgent needs of the hapless user. Welcome to automated-attendant hell. This needs to change … and soon, in my view.

So, here’s my challenge for the engineers in the speech-recognition and automated voice-response arena. First of all, design me a system that opens with a short and simple dialogue something like this: “Good morning Mr. Bairstow, you have reached Left-handed Widget Corporation, Press P now or at any time to speak immediately to a person who will be pleased to help you. Or, if you’d rather try out the latest version of our extremely efficient new speech-recognition and automated-response system, Press A.”

Note that this system gives you the offer of a personal response choice first so you do not have to navigate your way through endless boring menus to finally get to the live person. Second, the message hints that that the automated system might be more efficient for your needs and so you might like to give it a shot this time around. And, in fact, the automated system should be so efficient that it would eventually become your initial method of choice. Systems with many menus and long trees should soon be dinosaurs.

Note also that the computer system can identify you from the widely available Caller ID feature. There is absolutely no need at this stage for you to have to be subjected to a grilling worthy of the “Spanish Inquisition” before the system allows you to move on to the next level.

Frankly I do not wish to hear about wait times, either. Don’t tell me that, “due to higher-than-usual call volumes, your expected wait time is 35 minutes so please go to our totally out-of-date and completely useless Web site, www.lhwidget.com, or call back later, maybe between 1 and 3 a.m.” Did you ever hear of a company experiencing lower than usual call volumes? How long did you have to wait? You get the point?

Of course, this battle for the hearts and minds of customers could more easily and more profitably be won if the systems were designed more for the user’s benefit and not primarily for the company’s. But, no matter what my personal objections are to the lack of personal contact forced upon us by the current state of the art in this field, rapid expansion seems inevitable. Opus Research estimates that speech recognition was a $1.6 billion market in 2007 and the company predicts an annual growth rate of 14.5% over the next three years.

Speech-recognition technology is advancing rapidly to allow callers to talk naturally. Start-up companies such as Yap (Charlotte, NC) and Vlingo (Cambridge, MA) are developing systems for use with cell phones and automobile GPS units. I like the idea of a car that listens but I’m reluctant to drive a car that comes with a built-in back-seat driver. Will the car put me on hold?

“In the meantime, can I put you on hold for 15 minutes so you can listen to our Chairman of the Board’s tacky choice of elevator music? Or you may press F to leave a message for our Director of Customer Relations. There are 25 people ahead of you. Your expected wait time is …”

Th Jbairstow
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Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor

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