The Voice-Bot Conundrum

Updated: April 30, 2009

In the constantly churning sea of call-center agents , staff turnover is costing companies a small fortune every day. Part of the secret to keeping call agents longer and customer satisfaction higher lies in avoiding overwhelming phone queues.

Automation seems to be the only solution, though customers do not appear too fond of it. "Surveys show customers prefer using automated voice systems to waiting for an agent, yet satisfaction with many voice systems remains low," said John Ragsdale, vice president of research at SSPA (Service & Support Professionals Association), the largest and most influential industry trade group for technology service and support professionals.

Cost Vs. Customers

The source of the automation problem does not lie in a flaw in the technology, necessarily; it is more of a matter of companies choosing to stay with their current, mediocre IVR (Interactive Voice Response) systems because of cost.

"Though support organizations are embracing next-generation Web self-service , most companies have yet to evolve their voice self-service systems beyond basic interactive voice-response menus," said Ragsdale.

That is unfortunate, as voice bots have recently made significant advances. So why are companies continuing to use substandard systems that frustrate customers?

"My research showed that companies are getting such a good payback from mediocre technology that they aren't incented [sic ] to invest in better technology to successfully handle a wider array of issues," said Ragsdale. "As a result, accuracy and usability suffer."

Bad IVR, Bad Business

This practice has proven terribly shortsighted. Tech-savvy and tech-illiterate consumers alike are frustrated with such systems, which can be very bad for business.

"I switched cell-phone providers because they were routinely screwing up my bill, and every time I wanted to get it resolved, I had to spend at least 5 to 10 minutes ‘troubleshooting' my problem with a phone bot before I could ever get a live person on the phone," said Dan Hill, owner of Suite Spot Commerce, Inc . "Their savings in customer-support call-center costs cost them my business."

What to Do

To retain both call-center agents and customers, companies should have a plan for resolving automated phone system frustration among all users.

"Just like Web self-service, the work is not over when the project goes live," said Ragsdale. "Too many companies seem to launch an IVR or enhanced voice self-service without ongoing reporting and analysis to identify the paths customers are taking, where they seem to bog down or break out of the system to speak with an agent, and what common questions are being asked that aren't addressed by the system. Ongoing usability testing and fine-tuning of call trees is required."

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