Time to drop the automated phone systems?


Paul Cooper argues that if we want to improve customer service, we should start by getting rid of the automated systems.

One of the signs of being a customer service professional is never quite being satisfied with performance, but I remain incredulous at the number of organisations that still don’t get it, the number that still get exposed on Watchdog, You and Yours and the like, and the number that still give me personally, and therefore I assume you, a bad time. And sometimes, it can get too much!

Let’s face it – in our day-to-day lives we still encounter as many examples of bad as good, don’t we? Those shop assistants who are still standing around talking to each other, ignoring us until they finish their conversations, that call centre with the annoying automatic telephone system that goes in a loop and then cuts you off, with no human alternative, and so on.

Oh, let’s stop there. In my opinion, if there is one thing that, above all else, has held back the development of great service attitudes, and in many cases made them worse, it must be the automatic telephone answering systems that organisations have put in with no thought, and no concern for the customer, or often, the staff. Here’s some personal examples; I’m sure you will all have some too.

4 levels of menus

Recently, I had to call my internet provider. Their automatic system kicked in and after 4 levels of options asked me to key in the number I was calling about, and more. Having done all this the system told me that their hours were 8-5 so call back later!

The IVR and the agents are not connected

Again, I had to change my credit card so called to get it activated. The automatic system, after 3 levels of options, said to put in my 16 digit card number, then security and more, before passing me to a human being.

When I got through the first thing they asked me was my card number.

These are massive companies! Don’t their senior management ever have to call their own contact centres? Ah, here’s the secret – obviously not, or this would be fixed straight away!

And now the real killer

A company keeps calling me; cold calling me. I think it’s a utility company, or, worse, one of those fake ones, like “Energy Helpline,” who we all know are a problem. Anyway, it’s usually at the same time of the day, so I ignore it. However, just this once my wife answered it after about 6 rings. What she heard is classic so we wrote it down to share with you – “We are sorry, but we don’t have any operators to talk to you at the moment so we’ll call you back!”. Duh! So they pester us with a cold call, then don’t man the phones, and then “threaten” us with more pestering!

This has got to stop, bosses – you are getting it wrong!

Paul Cooper

No wonder at a recent conference editor Jonty Pearce suggested opening up this debate.  He suggested that major organisations should really think about whether they should consider giving up automatic systems altogether and go back to having real people answer phones.

First Direct never had an IVR

After all, First Direct, the country’s favourite bank by a country mile, has never introduced them, and a few major organisations are actually already taking them out or are thinking about it. My money would be on these organisations getting big leaps in their customer satisfaction ratings in the next months. And their staff will be happier, too, not to have to deal with so many irate customers.


Paul A Cooper is a Director of Customer Plus 

What are your views on automated systems? Please share your thoughts below.

Author: Jo Robinson

Published On: 14th Sep 2011 - Last modified: 1st Jun 2017
Read more about - Customer Service Strategy, ,

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  • Suggesting all IVR’s are bad is as about as accurate as suggesting all agents are good.

    Bit of an ill thought out rant really!

    Roger Smith 15 Sep at 14:27
  • IVR – It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. It takes a proper design methodology (see The Best Service Is No Service), experience, testing, testing, testing and ongoing accountability. But as you say many don’t do it. That doesn’t make it time to drop automated phone systems – it makes it time to drop companies that don’t bother to do it right.

    Peter Massey 15 Sep at 19:54
  • Hi Paul, if those calls have been from us then apologies we’ve bothered you. The Ofcom regulations state that we must keep the abandoned call rate within 3% of all calls, play an abandoned message to avoid silent calls and not redial customers who we abandon within 72 hours unless we can guarantee a live operator. We remove abandoned numbers for the 72 hours before another attempt is made.

    energyhelpline representative 16 Sep at 14:05
  • While I don’t agree with all that Paul says, he has prompted a very useful debate that I think the industry needs to reflect on. Yes, there are faults with some automated voice systems but surely there’s no financial or strategic justification for going back to putting masses of people in call centres. Aren’t we moving away from that? In light of another report on Call Centre Helper today about the fristrations of phone calls, shouldn’t we be looking at new ways of communicating with customers, via SMS, email or personalised web pages? This can be done in a proactive way to update customers before they need to ring in and chase up or complain. These chaser calls are frustrating, expensive and time-consuming for all parties.

    Nick Henderson 21 Sep at 11:16
  • I think Paul was aiming to stir up some healthy debate which is always a good thing in my mind.

    We need to remember one thing above all else – we are talking about human beings, and by our nature we are social beings who like to converse.

    Technology has its place and used well (as others have highlighted) it can be a fantastic enabler. Used poorly and as purely a cost cutting measure it often causes more harm than good. I remember a director at my first company (1997) who said in 10 years nobody will be using the phone to contact organisations it will all be email,SMS, web,text chat, social etc – while all of these new means to engage have arrived what is still the number one way of contacting an organisation? The telephone. Why? because we like to speak to other human beings! Simples!

    Tony Dain 23 Sep at 16:50
  • Automated Phone Systems?
    Believe me, they could push a vulnerable person over the edge.
    Are they created to keep people hanging on the phone while the meter ticks, and they spend spend spend? The very worst thing is that you can hang on & on while your life ticks away, and you are achieving NOTHING, then you get timed out, and have to go through the whole insanely maddening thing again.
    Just imagine someone who is already stressed and poverty stricken, trying to use this to get some help.
    It is soul destroying. There is a worse aspect too. It deprives people… HUMANS… of much needed work. Just as when we swipe our self service cards at a supermarket, just one less human has a job. PLEASE lets campaign to get rid of these soul destroying interfaces betwixt ‘them’ & ‘us’. As Tony said… we like to speak to other human beings… simples!

    Derynda Howells 15 May at 17:30
  • Wow! Your article is spot on Paul. You have ideally explained the exact frustration I feel when having to deal with automated phone services, most of which in my opinion are completely incompetent, untested and quite frankly useless. The ones I hate the most are when they take you (the customer) through a series of security questions to validate you against your account… then when a real human finally answers the call, they ask you all of the security questions all over again! What’s the point of a system that is capable of engaging the customer with two minutes worth of security checks, but yet incapable of providing some form of account-validation confirmation once the call is put through to the representative? Who tests these automated systems before they are rolled out to unsuspecting customers?

    Nigel Burrell 6 Mar at 00:07
  • Invariably, when I dial a telephone number I want to speak with someone. The only exception to this rule is when calling a line that only gives an automation option. Other than that ANSWER THE PHONE. Can it really be that much more expensive to employ a small staff with limited training to personally direct calls to the correct agent for the job? Is the loss of customer satisfaction plus the cost of the automation really worth it? My rule, press zero, if voice recognition is being employed ask for a representative, if both of these techniques fail to get me to a person at the completion of the call I will be looking for another organization to provide whatever product of service I went to the organization for originally.

    Steve Tedesco 25 Apr at 19:13
  • I am sick and tired of automated outbound call answering. It’s bad manners and rude for calls to be answered by a machine. Companies need to employ more staff to answer their telephones and treat their customers with more respect.

    Adam Sunnings 3 Mar at 15:23