OK, I’m all for answering machines, especially for small businesses. I use one. I even have a virtual receptionist available to me with my Ooma Office Phone Service any time I decide to take advantage of it. Right now, I just have my office number ring on my cell phone simultaneously so I never miss a call. If I don’t know who’s calling, or I’m too busy to answer, or the call is coming too far outside my normal business hours, I let it go to Voicemail.

And even then, if I decide to use it, the system allows me to configure voice prompts simply by typing the content into a text box. What I type is what the Virtual Assistant says. So I can say “Thanks for calling AppDataWorks. Press 1 for Sales. Press 2 for Support.” and so on. I think that’s appropriate for a very small business like mine. I could hire a “live virtual receptionist” to answer my calls and give a human touch to that contact, and I may do that down the road if my phone starts ringing enough. But for right now, even a highly configurable robo-voice prompting callers to the correct line would be fine.

In fact, it should be fine for any size business. Do you hear me Sears? Bank of America? Verizon?

Why do Corporations hate people so much?

It’s not just people. It’s their customers and employees. Big corporations hate their employees. Big time. Face it, it’s a fact. If you’re a high level executive in a major corporation and you are involved in the “protectionism of profits at the expense of customers and employees” then shame on you. This could be an article about good corporate citizenship but I won’t go there. Because this article is about making your customers talk to a computer, and how it’s one of the worst ideas ever to come along since Windows Vista.

When I call one of my vendors or service providers and have to talk to a computer, it’s probably one of the the most incredibly uncomfortable feelings I’ve ever had. Much worse than waking up from a dream naked in a room full of people. Seriously, as soon as the call is answered and there’s a computer on the other end, my anxiety level goes up, I become instantly angry, and I become confused.

You have a question or problem? Here. Talk to a computer.”

“Hi. Thanks for calling. Now, in your own words, tell me what you’re calling about.”

BAM! I have no idea what to say. I just sit there with these strange little guttural utterances coming out of my throat while my brain battles with the need to speak pitted against the lack of any idea what to say. As the seconds tick on, my blood pressure starts to rise because I know if I don’t say something… so “uh… uh…. uh…” comes out.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you. Try again. This time, tell me something about why you’re calling. You can say something like “I need to make an appointment” or “I need technical support”.

Now my breathing increases because those don’t describe why I’m calling. You see, I’m calling because another customer/employee hating robo-voice call came in telling me I have to call this number regarding my service appointment. So I stutter, stammer, and finally get out “I got a call from you telling me to call this number.”

This is exactly what you might say to a helpful human being who can actually process what you are saying and match it up to what you need. You know, an employee. Maybe someone who makes a mere $20K per year to answer the phone for you so your customers don’t feel like you completely hate people. But you do hate people. That’s why you’d rather spend millions on a robotic phone answering system that your customers hate than pay a person $20K per year to make your customers feel like you care.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you. Try again. This time, tell me something about why you’re calling. You can say something like “I need to make an appointment” or “I need technical support”.

I have to listen to the whole thing again, because I was taught to be polite and my brain won’t let me start answering the question while I hear talking on the other end of the phone. So I try again. “I’m supposed to call this number regarding my appointment”.

“OK. You’d like to schedule an appointment. Is this correct?”

“NO! I’m supposed to call this number because there’s a problem…” and before I can continue:

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you. Try again. This time, tell me something about why you’re calling. You can say something like “I need to make an appointment” or “I need technical support”.

“I NEED TO SPEAK TO A CUSTOMER SERVICE REP!!!!!”

“OK. Customer Service. Is this correct?”

“YES!” but at the same time, my wife comes in the room and says “Why are you yelling?”. DAMN! The computer heard her…

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you. Try again. This time, tell me something about why you’re calling. You can say something like “I need to make an appointment” or “I need technical support”.

“CUSTOMER SERVICE!” I yell, followed by a frustrated “what the f**k”, sabotaging my progress more.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you. Try again. This time, tell me something about…”

Now I’m no longer polite. “CUSTOMER SERVICE” comes out in a roar before the stupid computer can finish it’s sentence.

“OK. Customer Service. Is this correct?”

“YES!” followed by me holding my breath and holding my palm up to my wife as if to say “DON’T say a WORD!”

“OK. Let me connect you.”

Finally I get transferred. Then the phone rings a few times. Then I hear another customer/employee hating robo-voice:

“All operators are busy. Please hold for the next available operator. Your estimated wait time is: 22 minutes”

Then I get to listen to the most awful, garbled, digitally fragmented background music ever.


 

I don’t want to talk to a computer. And what if I can’t? This is an accessibility nightmare.

The incredible corporate narcissism and hubris that must go behind the decision to use this type of obviously customer/employee hating machine is no more exemplified than when someone who has a speech impediment, or someone with a strong accent tries to make this call. Obviously, someone who can’t talk at all won’t be calling, they’ll most likely be using a Text Relay system which uses a human being as a middle-man between the person that can’t speak/hear and the person on the other end they need to talk to.

Someone that can talk however, but doesn’t talk well because of a speech problem or impediment, or a very heavy accent, will have a very, very difficult time with this type of robo-voice system. It’s entirely possible that the robo-voice answering service will never understand anything that the person says, making it very difficult or even impossible for this person to ever successfully reach a human being.

I know, I’ll just press the ZERO key on the phone. Or just say “Operator”.

Wrong. In almost every case where Robotic Receptionist is on the other end of the call, and they don’t offer any way to use numeric prompts instead, you cannot press any keys on the phone. If you do, the tone will be misinterpreted on the other end as something it couldn’t understand. You MUST speak to it. And the artificial intelligence aspect of these systems has gotten so good that you can’t just ask for an operator. The geniuses that brought us this debacle in the first place programmed the system to ignore certain keywords, and “Operator” is usually the first on the list. So even if you say “Operator” when prompted to speak, many of these automated robotic voice systems will just say “That is not a valid response” or “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you.”

In my opinion, the only “Artificial Intelligence” at play is in the heads of the bean counting idiots that decided a system like this could replace people.

The obvious solutions to this absurd trend towards eliminating humans from the call center

In closing, I have some recommendations for Big Business / Major Corporations that they can and should employ so that their customers don’t start looking for an alternative to whatever it is they offer.

  • Hire people. I know this is tough, the whole idea of actually providing a living for people, because you’d have to deal with the whole Employment Taxes and Benefits thing which I know you find so distasteful, but there is wisdom in the economic genius idea of mine that if you employ people and pay them a living wage they’ll have more money to buy your stuff! So give some people jobs, train them to make the customer feel like a million bucks, and the ROI will be the loyalty of customers. This is a long term profiting strategy that trumps short term gains. Besides, most short term gains are manufactured these days by corporations cooking their own books by eliminating necessary spending that only makes it appear that they’re making more money but in the end causes more harm to a company’s bottom line than it does good. Hire some people.
  • If you can’t stomach the idea of providing a living wage so people have more money to spend on your stuff, then go back to the old fashioned voice prompt system where people can navigate through a maze of number pushing and “press 9 to go back to the previous menu”. It might take a while for them to find what they’re looking for, but if you can’t make it clear and obvious right up front then provide the ability to “press 0 for an operator”. The intention behind every call that comes in doesn’t always fall into a neat little box.
  • If you MUST use a robotic voice pseudo artificial intelligence machine to answer calls, please make the first thing the robot says be:

“Thank you for calling XYZ Company. If you can’t talk to me, that’s OK. Just press 1 now to use your phone’s keypad instead of your voice”


 

Be AWESOME!!!

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Jerry Boutot is a Microsoft Certified Application Developer (MCAD) and Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP). He owns AppDataWorks, LLC, which develops custom solutions for Desktop Software, Web Applications, Database Systems, and Online Marketing Solutions.

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