The problem with technology: technologists don’t think like humans

Spoken | August 9, 2016

Gilad Gilad Odinak, CTO for Spoken

The last time you called in to your local utility to set up service or to a national catalogue company to place an order, you probably had one of those frustrating experiences in which you ended up yelling, “I said ‘Miller,’ you idiot!” to the interactive voice response system (IVR) and ended up hitting zero to get to an agent as soon as possible.

Sound familiar? It’s a common problem with IVRs.

The problem is that those automated IVR systems are designed by technologists. And they think like technologists. And sometimes, they get really smart when they try to improve the system. So they bring in linguists, because they are trying to understand how language works. But that’s not how communication between two people goes, right? It’s what the people mean that is important, not the grammar. I believe that IVR systems would be better served if the designers enlisted psychologists to figure out how to effectively communicate with the caller on the other end of the line.

As we work every day to make our clients’ IVRs work properly, we find ourselves trying more and more to find out the state of mind of the caller and not what they’re saying exactly, because that’s not important. So we need to put ourselves in their shoes, to really try to think what is the caller is trying to achieve. Are they trying to solve some issue they have, some problem? Or are they trying to get some information or provide some information in order to achieve some objective, to solve something, or to get something?

So I’ll give you an example. And I often use this example: the first thing you want to do with the caller is ask them what their issue is. See how you always start by putting yourself in the caller’s shoes? And we don’t want to ask for any other information. And what’s even more important is that you want them to really tell you—not you telling them what they can say or what they can choose. Because each issue in the caller’s mind is a unique problem. So we go in assuming that the issue will be a unique problem, not one of three choices.

Now what’s interesting is that, while callers assume that in their mind their issues are totally unique, often, you know, the issue is something quite common. At least 50% of callers to a catalogue retailer will simply say a straightforward, “I want to place an order.” That’s a very simple request. And another 25% of them have other common, straightforward requests, such as “what is the status of my order,” “I want to return something,” or “I want to change my address.”

The problem is the last 25%, which are issues that are not very well defined. They are indeed unique. And giving someone a list to choose from still won’t solve those problems—so you need to be able to really listen to them.

So what I do at Spoken is to employ an expert to decipher those unique requests. We have come up with the idea of having “silent guides” who listen in on every call and who are experts in what people actually want. Why are they experts? Because they listen to 2,000 of these calls a day, so they become an expert after a few days (you would, too, if you listened in on all these calls). These guides hear 10,000 different reasons for a call, and 8,000 of them, as you know, are easy and straightforward to handle. But it’s the 2,000 in which the caller can’t really effectively communicate what they want right away that cause caller frustration. Those 20%-25% of callers truly have a unique issue. And those are the callers that can get frustrated. You know they say they want this department or the other, but an experienced customer service representative can figure out what they really want and help direct them.

That’s the challenge: what is the best way to find out what those 20% of callers really want? Most IVR’s don’t have a way to determine that. I believe in finding ways to enable experienced customer service representatives to figure out what those callers really want and help direct them.

When you are one of those 20%, what would help you?

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