Automatic frustration

Friday, September 4, 2009

I understand why businesses have automated telephone systems. Really, I do. That doesn't mean I like them.

Some experiences with automated systems are good. Some are not. Sometimes I wonder if the owners or managers of businesses with frustrating automated systems ever call to test the system.

Some businesses -- utility companies, credit-card companies, cable-TV companies, customer-service departments and, of course, telephone companies -- have automated systems that make it all but impossible to talk to a human being. And I suppose we've all had chats with heavily accented folks in far-off lands after dialing a 1-800 customer-service number.

Perhaps you've noticed that some customer-service reps have been trained to create an instantly friendly relationship by asking about the weather. Everyone likes to talk about the weather. It's a sure-fire ice breaker. Once, a rep in India, who had already determined I was in Missouri, wanted to know if I was watching the Rams on TV. I said I had, indeed, watched a few minutes of the game. He wanted to know the score. I didn't ask how much money he had riding on the game.

More recently I've encountered customer-service reps who say they are in Cape Girardeau. I immediately test them to see if they're just saying that. "Did you have to wait more than five minutes for the light to change at Broadway and Kingshighway?" I ask. The answer always confirms they are really in Cape Girardeau: "I thought I'd never get through Mount Auburn Road."

I find most customer-service reps truly want to give good service to customers. But sometimes the automated gizmos create a huge wall between customer and service.

Here's what I don't like most about some automated systems:

First, you dial the 1-800 number. A cheerful voice greets you and thanks you and informs you: Before you even think about talking to someone, you're going to have to push a gob of buttons on your phone, starting with "Para espanol, pulse uno."

Next, the automated system asks me to enter my 16-digit account number. Halfway through the process of entering the number, I hit the wrong button. There is no option to go back. I have to wait for the system to recognize my goof. "I'm sorry. I'm not able to verify your account number. Please try again." OK, but I know from experience that if I screw up again, the call will be terminated. "I'm sorry. I'm not able to verify your account number. Please call again. Thank you for calling our customer-service hot line. Good-bye."

Wait! I can do it! Give me another chance! Don't make me start over!

The automated system isn't listening.

Worse is when you finally get the account number entered correctly and respond to dozens of prompts about why you're calling and you get to talk to a customer-service rep. What is the first question asked? "Could I please have your account number."

Does this mean the rep thinks I lied when I pushed all those buttons? Or does this mean automated systems won't share information with customer-service reps?

If I were in charge of automated telephone systems, I would change the order. I would have every call answered by a human who would say, "Would you like to use our automated system? If so, please say yes."

jsullivan@semissourian.com<I>

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