The Inhuman Connection

In today’s technology-laden world, it’s easy to get caught up in over-automation. Keep your customer experience personal by following these tips.

There was a time when you dialed the phone and someone answered. If they didn’t, then the phone rang until you got the message that no one was there and hung up. Then came the answering system, those little recorders that would sit by the phone and pick up when you didn’t want to. That was fine, you wouldn’t miss important calls or, by extension, important business. These evolved into voicemail and while that was happening, computers began to take over the phone answering duties once performed by warm-blooded, bona fide receptionists, secretaries, salespeople or anyone else close to the phone when it rang. All of these led up to what we have today, euphemistically called the Customer Service Phone System (CSPS).

What do all of these pre-CSPS examples have in common? There was a human close at hand to do the real communicating. Now, said human may not have been chipper all the time or grinning like a game show contestant in over their head each and every time the bell rang and the lines lit up, but they were a far cry better than this:


CSPS: Thank you for calling the M Corporation. For English, say “English.” For…

CALLER: English

CSPS: For Spanish, say “Spanish”…

CALLER: English!

CSPS: I’m sorry. I cannot understand you For English, say “English”…


CSPS: I can’t understand you. However, your call is vitally important to us. Please remain on the line and one of our multilingual customer service representatives will be glad to direct your call. Your wait time for the next highly-trained customer service representative will be 50 minutes.

A minute passes, during which you are treated to (tortured by) slow instrumental versions of today’s hottest hip-hop and alternative favorites. Then a click and teasing silence—did they answer your call? Then you hear:

CSPS: Thank you for waiting. Please be assured that your call is very important to us. One of our highly-trained customer service representatives will be with you within 48 minutes.

Your hopes are dashed and another minute of some cast-off trio of burgundy-tuxedoed lounge lizards doing flaccid renditions of Timbaland and Lifehouse crawls sadistically by before you hear:

CSPS: Our highly-trained and caring customer service representatives are taking care of other customers. However, your call is still very important to us. It will be answered in approximately 46 minutes.


Who has not had something very similar to this play havoc with their time, energy and patience? We make jokes about it, complain about it, vow with varying levels of solemnity and rage to never do business with such a company ever again and yet customer service phone systems like this one or worse are still a plague across the business landscape of America. Whether it puts you into “terminal hold” like the example above or sends you wandering through a deliriously confusing maze of options only to be told, when you think you have reached the extension you were looking for, that this person is busy but values your call, the results are disheartening at best and probably result in more phones being hurled against walls than we would like to imagine.

Small Businesses are not Exempt

You would think that more people would be sensitive to the issue of maddening customer service phone systems since so many of us are victims of it. As a small business owner or manager, how much of your time is spent pressing buttons and listening to prompts when you should be placing orders and taking care of business? Ask yourself this: If you don’t like your own experience with these systems, how do your own customers feel about yours?

Beating the System

The key problem that you want to avoid is having a phone system that acts as a barrier between your company and the public (that is, your customers). Consider this: The more layers of options that your caller has to penetrate to make it through your system to a live human being, the less likely they are to complete the call. This follows along with the idea that the harder it is to do business with a company, the less likely it is that people will do business with that company. So what’s the solution? The formula is a dash of market research mixed with some pure simplicity and a pinch of old-fashioned customer service.

This is a recipe that the good folks at came up with for this issue. In fact, they have developed a standard by which customer service phone systems can be judged. Here are the ten rules of the Gethuman Standard 1.0:

1. The caller must always be able to dial 0 or to say “operator” to queue for a human.

2. An accurate estimated wait-time, based on call traffic statistics at the time of the call, should always be given when the caller arrives in the queue. A revised update should be provided periodically during hold time.

3. Callers should never be asked to repeat any information (name, full account number, description of issue, etc.) provided to a human or an automated system during a call.

4. When a human is not available, callers should be offered the option to be called back. If 24-hour service is not available, the caller should be able to leave a message, including a request for a call back the following business day. Gold Standard: Call back the caller at a time that they have specified.

5. Speech applications should provide touch-tone fall-back. This means that callers have the option to either speak the command or be able to use the keypad.

6. Callers should not be forced to listen to long/verbose prompts.

7. Callers should be able to interrupt prompts (via dial-through for dial applications and/or via barge-in for speech applications) whenever doing so will enable the user to complete his task more efficiently.

8. Do not disconnect for user errors, including when there are no perceived key presses (as the caller might be on a rotary phone); instead queue for a human operator and/or offer the choice for call-back.

9. Default language should be based on consumer demographics for each organization. Primary language should be assumed with the option for the caller to change language. (i.e. English should generally be assumed for the US, with a specified key for Spanish.) Gold Standard: Remember the caller’s language preference for future calls. Gold Standard: Organizations should ideally support separate toll-free numbers for each individual language.

10. All operators/representatives of the organization should be able to communicate clearly with the caller (i.e. accents should not hinder communication; representatives should have excellent diction and enunciation.)

Making the Grade

Achieving this standard should not be particularly difficult. All it takes is understanding, and then acting upon, the general principles that form the basis for the standard. These principles are:

* Humans first. In cases where a human is available, a human should quickly answer the call and determine the caller’s need. If appropriate, the human can offer a self-service option to accomplish tasks and thereby merely act as a natural language interface to the system’s Main Menu. Callers who prefer to use automation will elect to do so. Those requiring or otherwise preferring human assistance will have it.
* Make it easy. The system should be so easy, convenient and efficient to use that people will willingly choose to use it. Such systems should permit the user to accomplish tasks faster than by interaction with a human.
* Efficient prompts. No prompt content should be included unless it improves efficiency of task completion for the user. “Legalese” should not be included unless it is absolutely required by law. Cliché phrases, which have become meaningless to consumers due to overuse and lack of trust of phone systems, should be avoided. Examples include: “Your call is important to us.” “Please listen carefully, as our menu options have changed.” “You can access our website to answer most questions.”
* Systems are not human. Automated systems that try to sound human can be patronizing to consumers. When a consumer calls with a serious issue, they do not want to be greeted by overly friendly and cheery personas. Avoid using personas such as these that will annoy callers.
* Listen to your customers. Regularly survey users on call quality. Respond to frequently heard complaints in a public, visible forum, indicating what you are changing to address the frustration. Organizations should use this data to track trends of improvement over time, reward call center executives, impact support representatives’ compensation and training, and benchmark against the industry.
* Logical flow. Self-service applications should have logical flow. For example, it is unacceptable to obtain a caller’s account number, and then ask if he/she would like to open an account.

The Cost of a Bad System

Remember: These machines were designed to help you; first by making sure you got all your calls and then by routing your calls to the proper person. The theory being that the more efficient your communications, the more you will profit. The trouble is that this is actually a good theory: If your customers can reach the right people quickly and easily to resolve their problems, that is a real plus for your company. However, when your customers begin to perceive your system as an annoyance—or worse, a barrier between them and the service they need—they can, and often do, go from being customers to ex-customers and that is just not good for business.

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