Automated telephone menu/choice systems must be one of the most hated renewals of the last decade in the realm of customers or citizens and the way they are forced to communicate with the institutions that claim to exist on their behalf. I have tried to find analytic researches on the subject but failed to do so (I will be grateful for any hint). The variety of reasons one can have to call for a certain inquiry any kind of service or institution is theoretically endless. The repetitive character of certain questions certainly does exist and to a certain extant some preliminary sifting and redirecting of incoming calls is needed and can be beneficial to both customer and provider, but once the number of options channelled into one central telephone number goes beyond a total of 5 or 6 options, there is left only a customer that is subjugated to the economy, arrogance or negligence of information and service providers (the Dutch energy firm NUON has a total of 25 spoken options in 5 sub-layers with general messages in the opening menu and for each of the 5 sub-levels, bringing the total messages to 33; there could be even more layers but researching that, goes beyond my actual research energy potential at this moment).
I am not a mathematician but still familiar with programming routines and the building of web sites and the design of navigating tools and principles, a field of activity known as ‘interaction design’. The ideal, rule of thumb, is three steps to get there and one step to get back to where you were before or the beginning. This can be achieved easily with a visual interface, whereby they agile eye scans a page like a map or landscape and quickly discovers visual signposts leading the way. Spoken language as an interface is not at all of the same order and speed. One has to wait till someone has finished speaking a sentence. One has to try and memorize the different options to make – after the summing up – a meaningful decision. It is not for nothing that restaurants tend to have a menu card plus a waiter to facilitate the needed decision process. A rattling waiter listing the offers of the day – that are not on the card – just in speech, knows that he may need to repeat what is on offer several times before a customer is comfortable enough to decide.
Imagine a list of possible questions in the head of a customer and the idiosyncratic logic each one of us has about the order of things and how things can be named and arranged. Imagine this customer, telephoning to a specific service, who is going to be confronted with a series of list by a speech computer and is asked to react to this list by choosing one of the items by pressing one of the telephone number buttons offered as a concordance for a specific option at a specific level. After having taken the first question-level barrier, try to understand how it feels, to be once more confronted by yet another speech computer list and another series of choices, using the same numbers. Already at level two the customer does not feel anymore a honored “client”, but becomes a subjugated pawn, instead. It often gets worse, one may discover that the chosen level x or y is not the right level and one has to go back to the very beginning, try once more and try even harder not to make mistakes because of irritation. Some people try to jump the line and start pressing a choice number on their telephone before the whole list has been spoken, but not all automatized systems react favorably to this and also presented choice lists have become more easily adaptable by desk-managers of enterprises and tend to change much more frequent, hence… one runs a risk to end up in a wrong ally of the system. Still, apart from these common observations, there are always more customer questions than automated options in the pre-configured lists of such telephone-service-systems. Most telephone answer systems-designers know that people hate their system and they would opt for any choice whereby a real person, through a not listed question, can be reached. So the practice is to hide the “other” option somewhere down in a sub-menu, to avoid people to use a short-cut to what they actually want, a thinking human that answers the phone. There is also a danger in such non-human-response systems and one wonders if ever statistical data has been gathered to show where and how it can go wrong when we are forced to communicate first with a stupid machine routine before an intelligent being is able to react to an emergency.
What is the probability rating of a satisfactory answer of a provider of public services to a question of a customer? What is the frequency of alignment between the mind of a customer and the pre-configured matrix of an automated telephone system? How much mismatch will be produced between need and provision? The kafkaphone-workers themselves will have a story to tell here. They do have to bear in the first place – literary – the blunt for the programmed decline of our social realm. They will get a whole heap op bad vibes during their working day. The desk-managers that decide on distribution and navigation of questions and answers have shielded off themselves from this anger, they remain – like officers at the front – in the rear-guard. The real decision makers may not even be aware of the realities of the policy dictates wrought by them. For them it is just to economize, everybody does it nowadays… and now and then they commission an advertisement agency to make some nice flyers with pictures of actors posing like smiling and helpful personnel, send around to all their customers by post and also posted on the firm’s web site.
We, the customers, can not anymore directly ask to be called back, let alone to either friendly ask or to summon the switchboard of an enterprise or organization to connect us to the right person in charge. The somehow democratic traditional medium of the telephone – “we will put you through, one moment please!” – dwindles under the growing kafkaization of automated telephone inquiry systems. Kafka, because we speak to ‘kafkaphonists’ who are mostly anonymous functionaries with no decision power at all in a system that is kept hidden from us while we are send around through a telephone labyrinth in our vainly quests.
It is time to get rid of these primitive and de-humanizing communications systems. There is a need for employment of knowledgeable functionaries who can combine the wonders of electronic communication with the pleasure of a human voice and a minimal understanding of human needs at the other end of the line. These reborn telephonist diplomats of the 21. century can be home workers linked by the internet to all necessary information, having smart systems for quickly checking with the right persons in charge, having a telephonic impromptu consultation meeting on a special case to come up with quick results for a client, using SKYPE, mobile phones transfer of documents and chat, whatever comes handy. This is in the end a real profitable economic way to engage happy customers and an open democratic way to deal with citizens needs and demands.
it is time for reborn telephone-diplomats of the 21. century to re-humanize communication