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Robots on the Phone

September 10, 2012

Raise your hand if you have ever waited on a phone line for more than 20 minutes for your phone company, credit card company, airline, health insurance company, etc. to connect you to a human being.  Oh, you have?  Me too!  Let’s talk.

Today, I waited in two long phone queues for the opportunity to speak to a person.  The two calls were similar in nature.   One was to the IT department at my university, asking for help with a minor technical issue.  The other was to my health insurance company, requesting to change my plan.  Both calls lasted for about the same amount of time: 20 minutes, give or take a few.  And finally, for both calls, I endured terrible elevator music and pre-recorded announcements before finally speaking to human representatives.

What struck me about these phone calls was how differently I experienced them, in spite of how similar the calls themselves were to each other.

The first call I made on my way home from work.  I called the IT department, and immediately, the shrill saxophones were cued to whine into my eardrums.  A woman’s mechanical voice continually repeated, “We know you have better things to do with your time than wait on hold.”  I gritted my teeth and put my cell phone on speaker phone and tried to listen to the radio while still staying alert enough to hear the human voice I was waiting for.  (This half-life of being partially on the phone and partially off of it, as I’m sure you’ve experienced, can be stressful.)

However, in spite of the usual indignities of this “on hold” time, I did not begin foaming at the mouth as I usually do in this situation.  Why?  Because of a neat little device which also took the form of a woman’s pre-recorded voice.  Every few minutes, this female robot would buzz, “You–are–number–TEN–in–line.”

And this woman, robot though she was, counted me all the way down.  I knew when I was caller number nine.  And then eight.  And so on, down the line.  When I became “the next caller,” I turned the radio off so I could be ready for my turn.  And by the time I spoke to the nice IT lady on the phone, I was feeling pretty good.

The second call to my insurance company was in every way identical to the first, except that it lacked the countdown system.  As I sat beside my phone, I clenched and unclenched my fists as I heard the robot woman tell me, “Your call is very important to us.”  I grumbled to myself, “I’ll show YOU important” (and worse), as I tried to ignore but not ignore the cell phone that sat beside my computer.

The wait time ended up being about the same as the first call, and the woman that I spoke to was even more nice and helpful than the woman from the first call.  But somehow, the second call was much more emotionally draining than the first.

And here’s why: robot management.  The first company used their robots much more effectively.  To explain, I have a few pieces of advice for companies, when programming their “on hold” telephone robot voices:

1.) Robots are helpful for certain things, but at this point in time, a pre-recorded robot is unable to emotionally connect with a human being.  Any attempts to do so sound false, unappealing, and patronizing.  “We’re sorry for the wait” or “Your call is very important to us” are words that are only meaningful when a real person says them and means them.

2.) Here is what we do want from our telephone robots: INFORMATION that we can use, that puts us at ease, that helps us structure our time, that helps mentally prepare us for the wait.  Yes, the IT department’s countdown system might be too high tech for many systems.  But if your company can’t manage that, have your robot tell us something helpful, such as, “Average wait times for an operator are 20 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes at noon, and 40 minutes in the afternoon.”  We might not like the information the robot gives us, but at least we can prepare ourselves mentally, and at least we won’t feel manipulated or patronized.

3.) And as for elevator music, please reconsider the saxophones.  I understand why elevator music is important–it lets the caller know that the call is still connected, and it is politically inoffensive.  But if there’s any way to replace the saxophones with something else, please do so.  I’m picturing a little banjo muzak, but that might be too Deliverance for some.

Companies, take my advice, and your customers will be much less angry by the time they get to your operators and much less likely to cancel your services.  And really, if this doesn’t bring peace on earth, I’m not sure what will.

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