First Let’s Kill All The Robots

It’s interesting that Glenn Reynolds would have an article about customer service robots up today, since I had to deal with one this morning.  While his experience was positive, I’ve never liked dealing with them and my experience today didn’t exactly give me any more warm feelings for them.

The power failed here just before 9:00am.  As soon as I confirmed that there wasn’t a problem with my breaker I called TXU’s “customer service” number.  When you select the option to report an outage you’re dumped into a second phone system with an obnoxious overly chipper female voice.  They obviously didn’t think it out carefully, since the first thing it says to you is, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t able to get your account number.”  It then asks you to speak or key in the account number.  After navigating through this and speaking the right phrases at the right times I was assured by the chipper robotic voice that my problem had been recorded.

After a couple of hours had passed I started to wonder if they were doing anything about the problem.  The power was still off and I hadn’t gotten a call on my cellphone (which I had given to the chipper robot when it asked for a contact number).  I called back, determined to find some way to break the robot’s programming and speak to an actual human.  I found that when it asks you if your account number is right that it has no provision for keypad input (i.e. some systems allow you to enter ‘1’ for yes, but this one required you to speak “Yes” or “No”).  If you enter a number it says that it didn’t understand you and to either say “Yes” or “No.”  I hit ‘1’ again and it said that it was having difficulty understanding me and was transferring me to an agent.  Ah-ha!  Success at last.  After a short wait I got a person on the line and reported the problem.  The power was back on within 20 minutes of reporting it via the person.  So, from now on, I’m going to be purposefully obtuse in order to get a human on the line.  I don’t trust the damn robot to actually record my problem and dispatch someone to fix it.

Now I’ll be up front and confess that I despise talking to machines.  First, I don’t trust voice recognition to get things right.  Second, it feels silly to talk to a machine.  Third, most of these damn robots are too chipper and familar.  They come across to me as being unserious, which leaves me with the impression that my problem isn’t being taken seriously.  The whole concept of using a robot to keep from having to deal directly with me reeks of contempt for the customer.  It says that these companies will do anything in their power to keep us, their paying customers, at arms length.

However, despite my hatred for the damn things, it would appear that customer “service” robots are here to stay.  While talking to a friend this afternoon, he mentioned that he’d discussed these robotic systems with one of their vendors and was informed that their surveys showed that 85% of people would rather talk to the machine than key in information.  If we assume that the vendor’s survey is correct (and I would look carefully at it, given that it’s in his interest to show that people like the systems he’s selling), that still leaves the other 15% of us who despise the damn things.  I guess it depends on your market whether you can afford to offend and annoy 15% of your customer base.  While TXU has to face competition, there is still a lot of old-style monopoly mindset in the way they treat customers.  Perhaps they don’t care if they piss people off.

Anyhow, if companies are interested in keeping their customers happy, rather than just minimizing their callcenter costs, they might want to consider a few design points when implementing these voice response systems.

  1. Every menu must have an “escape” to a human operator.
  2. Voice recognition systems must have the ability to accept keypad input for those who do not wish to speak to the machine.
  3. If a call has to be transferred from one phone system to another it must not be done in such a way that the call enters the second system in an “error state.”


1 Comment

  1. Kevin White says:

    Fidelity has a voice recognition system for checking quotes and balances and even making trades!! Yikes! We just debuted some supposedly highly upgraded system for customers calling from Minnesota as a trial run.

    I have no use for any of it.

    One of the problems is that our telephones still register very poor sound quality—an extremely narrow frequency band, little resolution, virtually no dynamic range, and high distortion. When you have folks trying to use it with their speaker phones or glitchy celphones, it’s nearly unworkable.