Get human – or get lost!


Last year Paul English published his notorious IVR cheat sheet to help US customers bypass automated phone systems. Many customer service managers were not amused: they risked seeing their personnel costs skyrocket and the return on their technology investments plummet. Quite an unfortunate development, as the oft-cited goals of (speech-enabled) IVR technology are to reduce costs as well as to increase customer satisfaction.

In a remarkable keynote address held at last week’s SpeechTEK conference in New York City, Mr. English reiterated his plea to customer service managers and CEOs: stop running your customer service department as a cost center; instead, reach out to your customers, and start considering customer contact as an important company asset – which it is. In short: “get human” (again).

The trouble with such a general statement, of course, is that every company executive will agree in principle. But will they also act on it? In my opinion, key elements to bring about a positive evolution are:

  • a growing awareness of the real (= known plus hidden) costs of badly designed IVR systems;
  • the willingness to make current IVR systems more user-friendly, by using speech technology (and other technologies) knowledgeably;
  • the promotion of the customer service function to the top level of the company hierarchy, in order to enable the definition of integrated customer service strategies and policies.

A first tentative answer to the self-proclaimed American IVR crisis is Paul English’ proposal for a “GetHuman™ earcon standard “, currently open for discussion. In its current preliminary version, the very first rule reads:

If a human operator is available when a consumer calls, the human should answer the phone

Assuming human operators don’t sleep while working, this rule is a tautology. The real question is whether a sufficient number of operators are being made available at a given moment in time – which brings us back to workforce optimization, i.e. company policy.

As a sign of the importance given by the speech industry to the GetHuman™ initiative, it was also announced that Microsoft, Nuance Communications and others “will work with the GetHuman™ project to drive adoption of these standards”. Cynics might say that a dangerous initiative has been neutralized. Whatever the point of view, the GetHuman™ initiative is important because it stresses what should be self-evident: that customer service is about serving customers.

If customer service departments don’t get human, customers will vote with their feet, and tell them to … get lost.

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