Yet the practice of blocking customers from reaching human assistance continues at many companies. I believe most of these are driven by mistaken efforts to save money by increasing automation, without realizing that (a) it doesn't really increase automation much, and (b) the costs are far greater than the benefits. But it can be hard when senior management says, "save money or else," and doesn't provide the budget to do things right.
But what about the opposite approach? Can an company dramatically improve customer satisfaction at minimal cost simply by giving callers the option to speak to an agent at the beginning of a call?
Instinctively, I think the answer is "yes," though actual data points are hard to find.
Imagine how customers will react if the first thing they hear when they call is something like this:
"Thank you for calling XYZ company. If you are calling about a routine issue such as checking your account balance, order status, or to find the location of a retail store, you can press '1' now for our menu of self-service options. Otherwise, please wait, and someone will help you within 30 seconds."
Whoa, what's that you say! Make live agents the default, with self-service as an option! "It'll never work," I can hear finance executives muttering already, "nobody will choose self-service, and our call center costs will go through the roof!"
But that thinking is demonstrably wrong. That assumes that customers always prefer to talk to a human instead of using self-service, but our research has consistently shown the opposite.
In fact, this point is so important that I'm going to put it in bold-face italics: When presented with a well-designed self-service option, most callers prefer self-service over a live person. Our research has shown this time and time again.
The key, however, is providing a good enough self-service option. Most systems, frankly, don't measure up. Not because designing a good self-service system is rocket science, but because many companies just don't pay any attention to the human factors.
We believe that most callers know--before they dial the phone--if they need to talk to an agent or not. Need to check your balance? Most people will happily use self-service. Mistake on your bill? There's no way a computer's going to help you, and you'll do whatever it takes to get a human on the line.
In fact, having to talk to a stranger for a simple task can be a burden. All you want is your account balance, but you might have to make small talk, or have to wait in line, or wind up with someone slow and incompetent. But self-service gets you off the phone right away.
Still don't believe me? Answer these questions about your own behavior:
(a) Where do you go when you need cash? To a branch of your bank, or to an ATM?
(b) When filling your car at a station which offers "pay-at-the-pump," do you pay at the pump or go inside?
(c) If you just need to leave someone a brief message (i.e. "Thursday for lunch works for me, I'll be there.") do you prefer to talk to the person on the phone, or just leave a voicemail or send an e-mail?
If you're like most people, you probably bank at an ATM, pay at the pump, and send a short message, as long as you're offered the option. So why should customer service be any different?
Unfortunately, it takes a huge leap of faith to go from thinking of "containing" customers in the automated system to thinking about "steering" them to it, or even "seducing" customers with the additional convenience. It is a completely different view of customer service automation, and one which runs completely counter to the way people have thought about IVR systems for 20 years.
The only major company I can think of which comes close to trying this is Southwest Airlines, which has essentially no IVR at all: every caller talks to a live human. I suspect that it is no coincidence that Southwest consistently has among the highest caller satisfaction scores we measure, but they're also spending a lot more on customer service than they have to. Surely callers with routine inquiries (like flight times) can be offered a self-service option.
So who will be the first company to take the leap of faith and give customers the choice of self-service or live agent?