Don’t Leave Customers Frustrated: Best Practices in Phone Automation


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Imagine this scenario…

You are working on a big project for work, and it is due in a few hours. You’re coming into the home stretch, and your internet goes out. You try all of the standard things – shutting down & rebooting, hitting the rest button on the modem, and waiting. Time is passing quickly and you can’t tell if it’s an outage of something with your connection.

You call the toll free number for your internet provider, and there is an automated system. All you want to do is have an automatic refresh done on your line – you’ve done this before and it’s worked, so here’s to hoping.

The call starts, and you press 1 for English.

You’re asked to press 1 for help with your internet, and 2 for your cable service. So far, so good.

Then it asks you to state the reason for your call. You say, “Internet connection” – at first, the auto attendant says they do not recognize your request, and give you some options to respond with. You choose one and say that, and again they don’t recognize your request.

You try hitting “1” since that makes sense. Maybe. Doesn’t work. It’s still asking you for the purpose of your call; now you’re getting frustrated and talk a little louder, and the auto attendant gets it wrong. Now you try pressing “0” in hopes it will skip to a live person.

No such luck.

Then comes the icing on the cake – you practically yell your request into the phone, and – good news – the attendant understands! Now she is asking if you want to hear information about resetting your password. You press “2” for no, since you just want them to reset the connection.

Despite saying no, the attendant message starts a minute and a half long tutorial on how to change your password! Didn’t you just say you don’t need that?

After another three minutes of going around the block, you finally get to the right prompt, your connection is reset, and all is well in the land.

Except your blood pressure got a little higher and you wasted valuable time that could have been spent on your project.

There are many automated phone system stories from hell; everyone has one, that’s for sure. How can your company be sure that you’re not creating frustration for your customers? Below are some tips to make sure your system is not only functional and efficient on your end, but helps in creating a great customer experience.

  • Test before it goes live: perhaps the one mistake that companies make is not testing the system before it is launched. Sometimes it’s hard to be objective and see things like a customer would, but it is worth it. Have staff from different departments and functions call with a goal of reaching a certain area of the company – get feedback on what’s good, what’s clunky, and what can be improved. For a more objective approach, ask friends and/or family to test it, or, better yet, some of your best customers. Get feedback and make any tweaks before it goes live.
  • Be careful with voice recognition: while this can be a great thing, it can also be a source of frustration. I recall going around and around with an airline’s automated service once – it didn’t not recognize my requests, and when I got frustrated I tried to answer louder and more clearly, only to have the auto attendant interrupt, thus creating a circle of hell. If you’re going to go the voice route, make sure there is also an option to press a corresponding number for customers to use in case the recognition fails.
  • When possible, tie the phone calls to accounts: utility companies seem to dominate in this area. I’ve called using my land line, which is connected to my accounts. The first part of the call confirms my account using my phone number; it will tell me that they have detected an account and ask me to confirm my home address. This takes away an additional step of the customer needing to provide this information.
  • Speaking of eliminating steps: the goal of an automated attendant is to get the customer to the right place. The other goal should be to ensure that it takes the least number of steps possible; keeping customers in the automated system any longer than neccesary will only create frustration, especially if in the end they are routed to the wrong department. It’s wise to physically map out the steps to direct customers to the right department, and to visually gauge the shortest path from point A to point B.
  • Automate the simple requests: do you have a lot of customers calling for information on resetting their accounts, or other simple requests that can easily be handled without a live person? Offer the option, when possible, for customers to choose to receive an email or text with the link to the information they need. This is good for customers who may have originally looked for the information online but couldn’t locate it, for example. This will alleviate the need to speak to a live agent but at the same time quickly assist the customer. While many issues will require contact with a live person, this is another way to expedite the process and help customers quickly.
  • Always offer a live alternative: especially in the story above, having the option to talk to a live agent at any time would have saved the experience. No matter what automated system you use, make sure there is an option to talk with someone at each step of the way. Some companies avoid this for fear that everyone will simply skip all of the steps and go right to a live agent; however, this is not typically the case and customers will first use the automated system, as long as it is easy to use.

Automation is great and can definitely be a time saver on both ends of the customer service spectrum. Make sure it’s done right and gives your customer an easier and more efficient (and positive) experience, and not high blood pressure and anxiety.

Marianne Hynd
Marianne Hynd is the Vice President of Operations at Ann Michaels & Associates, a customer experience measurement firm. The company specializes in mystery shopping, customer feedback, and interactive engagement kiosk programs.


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