I'm at SpeechTEK West this week, and I spent much of the day today in an all-day brainstorming session with a group of the top user interface designers in the world of automated customer service.
Nominally, the topic was how to improve error handling in speech recognition systems.
But during the session, something which has been banging around in the back of my head for a long time finally crystalized: The key to excellent customer service is letting the customer control the call.
The biggest customer complaints about bad service--especially bad automated customer service--generally revolve around the company trying to force the customer down a path the customer doesn't want to follow. Roadblocks to reaching a live agent are the biggie, of course. But overly-scripted agents, asking irrelevant questions, and even unexpectedly transferring to an agent when the self-service system fails are all in the same category.
Before a customer calls, he already knows what he wants to accomplish, and (often) an idea of the steps he needs to follow to get that task done. Maybe the customer's idea of how to get the task done isn't really practical, but the idea exists, and anything which pushes the customer off his mental "script" of the call is going to cause frustration. If he's calling about a billing problem, he expects to have to talk to a human and explain the problem. If he's calling to find the hours of a local bank branch, he doesn't expect to have to enter an account number.
The challenge for the company is to handle that customer's call efficiently without knowing in advance why the customer called. What's more, the customer is a whole lot smarter than the automated customer service system which (in the majority of cases) will first attempt to handle the call.
So by letting the customer keep control of the call, the company is both taking advantage of the customer's knowledge of why he called, and also the customer's superior intelligence in how to handle the task.
In many cases, the philosophy of letting the customer control the call is mostly, well, philosophical. An automated call will always progress from state to state based on customer inputs; and customers will often want to do things which are impossible or against business rules. But there are some practical implications:
* Don't try to force customers down a particular path. Encourage where appropriate, but always leave an out: "You can make your balance transfer in our self-service system, or dial zero at any time to connect to an agent. Let's begin...."
* Make sure there's always a way to back up, start over, or bail out.
* Ask for information only when needed.
* Enlist the customer's help by explaining what's going on and why. For example, if the speech recognition is having a hard time, don't just drop the call into an agent queue, give the customer a choice: "I'm sorry we're having so much trouble on this call. If you want to start over with a live agent, just press zero at any time. Otherwise, we can keep trying self-service...."