Monday, December 22, 2008

Please listen carefully as we don't really care how awful our IVR is...

You've heard them enough times, and if you are like me, you cringe every time: "Your call is very important to us," they say, and then they keep you waiting and waiting; "For English, press one," they insist on telling you, even though you've called them a hundred times and every time you pressed – that's right -- one for English; then there are those little phrases you've heard so many times that your ears don't event bother to pick them up any more – ones like, "You can interrupt me at any time" or "Please select from the following menu options."

But there is one particular little gem that, in spite of the thick skin of my ears, still gets my goat. I'm talking about, "Please listen carefully as our options may have changed!"

I would say 9 out of 10 of the IVRs I call these days have this phrase right there upfront, proudly played as if to signal that you are dealing with a company so dynamic and so cutting edge that its menu options are constantly changing – so, you'd better pay attention lest you get hurt.

The sad thing is that almost 100% of the time the phrase is played, nothing had really changed in the IVR menu for months – and in some cases, the phrase is inserted from the very beginning of the IVR deployment!

So wherefore the horrid little habit?

A good guess would be that it started legitimately enough when menus did change and power users skipped ahead without listening to the new options, resulting in confusion and complaint call backs about how the system was broken.

From that point on, my guess is that the context of the inclusion of the phrase falls into one of the two scenarios: (1) the voice user interface (VUI) "designers" were rank amateurs and therefore proceeded like all tentative amateurs do -- that is, by playing it safe and methodically and carefully imitating "what is out there," or (2) the VUI was designed by professionals who knew better than to perpetrate the atrocity but who were forced to include the phrase by adamant call center managers who perceive the IVR's mission to be first and foremost keeping callers from reaching humans and are therefore willing to throw any verbiage at callers if it forces them to listen carefully to the instruction prompts – i.e., are willing to outright lie to callers about how the menu is constantly changing.

Case (1) is the easier to remedy: if companies were to systematically invest in hiring professionally trained VUI designers and would take the development of their IVR as seriously as they do their web site, the phrase will at long last set itself on the path of extinction.

Case (2) requires a bit of a struggle. If you are a VUI designer and find yourself battling an arrogant, all-knowing call center manager who insists on including the phrase, here is how I would suggest you proceed.

First, point out that power users do not listen to prompts – they know what to press and they start pressing as soon as they realize they are connected. They will certainly not notice the white noise language of, "Please listen carefully as our options have changed" -- especially if it is played every time they call. The only way power-users will learn that an option has changed is for them to get lost once or twice.

Second, point out that even non-power users filter out the phrase if it is played every time they call. After a while, they will catch on that you are crying wolf and will simply tune out your pleas.

Third, propose that if there was indeed a drastic menu change and you desperately needed your callers to notice it, then at the very least, use something far more attention grabbing than flat language to signal the change: a double dings sound followed by an announcement that the menu options had changed, for instance, would be far more effective.

And to close the deal, explain to the call center manager that the best way to contain callers within the IVR is to ensure that they have a great experience with it every time they call it. What if the IVR were to remember who among the callers had already heard the menu change notification and then would act on that knowledge? For instance, noticing that the caller is calling for the first time since the menu change, the IVR would play the menu change alert and disable barge in, hence both ensuring that the caller notice that the menu had changed and forcing them to listen to the new options. And then, next time that person called, the IVR wouldn't play the menu change alert again.

Wouldn't that be more likely to minimize errors and misrouting than playing a phrase that is either not even noticed by the caller or, if noticed, can only needlessly annoy?