Off Center
In the eyes of many customers, self-service is not a compound word but rather a four-letter one. It’s not that there’s anything inherently bad about IVR or web self-service applications it’s that there’s something bad about most contact centers’ efforts to make such apps good.

Relatively few contact centers extend their quality assurance (QA) practices to self-service applications. Most centers tend to monitor and evaluate only those contacts that involve an interaction with a live agent – i.e., customer contacts in the form of live phone calls or email, chat or social media interactions. Meanwhile, no small percentage of customers try to complete transactions on their own via the IVR or online (or, more recently, via mobile apps) and end up tearing their hair out in the process. In fact, poorly designed and poorly looked-after self-service apps account for roughly 10% of all adult baldness, according to research I might one day conduct.

When contact center pros hear or read “QA”, they need to think not only “Quality Assurance” but also “Quality Automation.” The latter is very much part of the former.

To ensure that customers who go the self-service route have a positive experience and maintain their hair, the best contact centers frequently conduct comprehensive internal testing of IVR systems and online applications, regularly monitor customers' actual self-service interactions, and gather customer feedback on their experiences. Let's take a closer look at each of these critical practices.

Testing Self-Service Performance

Testing the IVR involves calling the contact center and interacting with the IVR system just as a customer would, only with much less groaning and swearing. Evaluate such things as menu logic, awkward silences, speech recognition performance and – to gauge the experience of callers that choose to opt out of the IVR – hold times and call-routing precision.    

Testing of web self-service apps is similar, but takes place online rather than via calls. Carefully check site and account security, the accuracy and relevance of FAQ responses, the performance of search engines, knowledge bases and automated agent bots. Resist the urge to try to see if you can get the automated bot to say dirty words. There’s no time for such shenanigans. Testing should also include evaluating how easy it is for customers to access personal accounts online and complete transactions.

Some of the richest and laziest contact centers have invested in products that automate the testing process. Today's powerful end-to-end IVR monitoring and diagnostic tools are able to dial in and navigate through an interactive voice transaction just as a real caller would, and can track and report on key quality and efficiency issues. Other centers achieve testing success by contracting with a third-party vendor that specializes in testing voice and web self-service systems and taking your money.

Monitoring Customers’ Self-Service Interactions

Advancements in quality monitoring technologies are making things easier for contact centers looking to spy on actual customers who attempt self-service transactions. All the major quality monitoring vendors provide customer interaction re­cording applications that capture how easy it is for callers to navigate the IVR and complete transactions without agent assistance, as well as how effectively such front-end systems route each call after the caller opts out to speak to an actual human being.

As for monitoring the online customer experience, top contact centers have taken advantage of multichannel customer interaction-recording solutions. Such solutions enable contact centers to find out first-hand such things as: how well customers navigate the website; what information they are looking for and how easy it is to find; what actions or issues lead most online customers to abandon their shopping carts; and what causes customers to call, email or request a chat session with an agent rather than continue to cry while attempting to serve themselves.

As with internal testing of self-service apps, some centers – rather than deploying advanced monitoring systems in-house – have contracted with a third-party specialist to conduct comprehensive monitoring of the customers' IVR and/or web self-service experiences.

Capturing the Customer Experience

In the end, the customer is the real judge of quality. As important as self-service testing and monitoring is, even more vital is asking customers directly just how bad their recent self-service experience was.

The best centers have a post-contact C-Sat survey process in place for self-service, just as they do for traditional phone, email and chat contacts. Typically, these center conduct said surveys via the same channel as the customer used to interact with the company. That is, customers who complete (or at least attempt to complete) a transaction via the center’s IVR system are invited to complete a concise automated survey via the IVR (immediately following their interaction). Those who served themselves via the company’s website are soon sent a web-based survey form via email. Customers, you see, like it when you pay attention to their channel preferences, and thus are more likely to complete surveys that show you’ve done just that. Calling a web self-service customer and asking them to compete a survey over the phone is akin to finding out somebody is vegetarian and then offering them a steak.      

It’s Your Call

Whether you decide to do self-service QA manually, invest in special technology, or contract with third-party specialists is entirely up to you and your organization. But if you don’t do any of these things and continue to ignore quality and the customer experience on the self-service side, don’t act surprised if your customers eventually start ignoring you – and start imploring others to do the same.  

In this age of social media, sound bytes and ADHD, people love quick and catchy stats. Unfortunately, in the contact center and customer care space, there seem to be only a handful of snazzy stats in circulation. The same ones just keep getting regurgitated over and over (yes, that’s redundant), especially on Twitter.

This is perplexing considering how dynamic customer care is and how much contact centers have evolved. It’s actually worse than perplexing – it’s depressing. Every time I see someone tweeting the old chestnut , “Satisfied customers tell only 3 people about their experience, while dissatisfied customers tell 8-10 people” (or some variation of this), a part of my soul dies. I even wept a little just now while typing that stat.

Rather than just complain about the lack of statistical variety being promoted by self-proclaimed customer experience experts in the Twittersphere, I aim to remedy the situation. Following are several fresh and captivating stats about customer care and contact centers that I believe you and everybody else will feel compelled to talk and tweet about:

  • 86% of customers would be willing to pay more for better customer service. 100% of contact center managers would be willing to pay more for even mediocre customer service.  

  • 70% of contact centers list Average Handle Time among their key performance metrics at the agent level. Of those centers, 100% need a clue.

  • Only 17% of contact centers really mean it when they say “Your call is very important to us”. Of the remaining centers, 38% feel “Your call is somewhat important to us”, 24% feel “It’s surprising how unimportant your call is to us”, and 21% feel “It’s hilarious that you are still holding for a live agent.”

  • 73% of contact center managers claim to know how to accurately measure First-Call Resolution. The remaining 27% of managers are telling the truth.

  • Engaged customer service agents are 35% more likely to provide a positive customer experience than are customer service agents who are already married.

  • The top three criteria contact center managers consider when selecting work-at-home agents are: 1) Past performance; 2) ability to work independently; and 3) body odor.

  • Every time a caller must provide his/her name and account number to an agent after having just provided that exact same information via the IVR system, a puppy dies.

  • 97% of contact center agents fantasize daily about sending a hungry Bengal tiger to the home of abusive callers. The remaining 3% of agents fantasize daily about sending a hungry Siberian Tiger.

  • 81% of contact center agents are empowered to do exactly what their managers and supervisors tell them.

  • Each year, over 150 customer care professionals die from overexposure to acronyms.

  • 50% of managers feel their contact center is highly unprepared to handle social customer care; the remaining 50% do too.  

  • The three people that satisfied customers tell about their experience are Sue Johnson, Dave Winthrop, and Bud Carter. All three are tired of hearing about these experiences.

  • 42% of contact center managers say they will not hire an agent applicant unless said applicant has a pulse and/or can work at least one weekend shift a month.

  • Four out of five agents represent 80% of all agents. In contrast, the remaining agents represent only 20% of all agents.

  • The average agent-to-supervisor ratio in contact centers is 20:1. The odds that this is enough to provide agents with the coaching and support they need to succeed is 2000:1.

  • 100% of managers destined for greatness and wealth purchase a copy of the Full Contact e-book. 0% of managers understand why the author of said e-book looks so angry and aggressive in the photo on the book cover.

Many progressive contact centers are starting to break free from the confines and rigidity of traditional call routing. Rather than blindly sending callers to the next available agent – regardless of who’s calling or why – these centers are exploring routing methods that are so unconventional they have been banned in certain Midwestern U.S. cities.

Here are a few prime examples of customer care organizations doing call routing on the edge.

HMOno Health Insurance
HMOno uses priority queuing like no other contact center on earth or in New Mexico. The center’s New Policy division gives high priority to healthy callers because they cost less to insure and whine less to agents. 

Every call is front-ended by an IVR system designed to determine if new callers have any serious health risks. A voice prompt asks callers a series of risk assessment questions, such as “Do you smoke?” “Do you drink?” and “Do you work at a public high school?” Callers who answer “no” to all risk assessment questions are quickly routed to a live agent anxious to sell them a policy. Callers who answer “yes” to one or two assessment questions are knocked back a few places in the queue. Those who answer “yes” to three or four questions are placed at the end of the queue. And those who answer “yes” to five or more questions are immediately routed to a company competitor or a hospital.

The IVR system also has been programmed to listen for any sneezing, coughing or wheezing sounds to help determine a caller’s health. If any such sounds are detected, a voice prompt says “Gesundheit!” or “Please cover your mouth” before the caller is bumped back in the queue or routed externally.

MegaMerchandise, which sells everything from saucepans to sporting goods, knows customers appreciate the personal touch. That’s why their contact center – staffed with an eclectic group of employees – uses a truly unique routing process that matches each caller with an agent who has similar interests, personality traits, and SAT scores.

All calls are initially answered by an automated “matchmaker” programmed to quickly assess which agent the caller is most likely to bond with. For instance, if a man from Brooklyn calls interested in purchasing a baseball bat or a thick gold chain, the matchmaker will route that call to an agent like Joey “No-Neck” Gambini. Joey can then have a friendly informal chat with the caller about benchpressing and broken kneecaps to help build rapport before closing the near-certain sale.

Big Spur Bank & Mistrust
Handling irate customers is never fun, but routing them to convicted murderers can be. Big Spur Bank & Mistrust – based in Sweetwater, Texas – has been doing it for about a year, with impressive results.

The bank’s contact center uses cutting-edge technology to identify angry callers, who are then seamlessly routed to death row inmates trained to help the callers realize the pettiness of their complaints.

Here’s how it works: The center’s automated attendant is able to measure the heart rate of each caller. Whenever the rate exceeds 200 beats per minute, the attendant knows that the caller is either furious or has just run a 10K race. To determine which is the case, the caller is told to “Press 1 if you are fighting mad” or to “Press 2 if you need some Gatorade.” Callers who press 1 are routed to the first available killer in one of the many fine high-security prisons in Texas. To help callers put things in perspective, Inmate agents use phrases like, “How dare you complain to me about a $3 ATM fee – I sleep on a metal slab and eat gruel every day,” or “You think being rejected for a loan is bad? Try having your stay of execution request denied 10 times.”

In most cases, callers calm down and apologize for their selfishness, at which point the inmate agent can take advantage of the caller’s guilt and begin cross-selling/up-selling premium bank products.

_ It's that time again – that time when my fearless journalistic tendencies flare up after a year of repressing them. I can only keep the lid on controversial and shocking contact center-related stories for so long before they start to gnaw at my conscience and disrupt my daily mid-morning and mid-afternoon naps.

Here are a couple of the most contentious contact center news stories our industry has been censoring for months.

Overly Convincing Speech Recognition App Blamed for Customer's Death

Managers at Ephemeral Airlines' reservations center knew that callers would love the company's new advanced speech recognition system. However, it never imagined that a caller would actually fall in love with it, nor that it would cause him to perish of a broken heart.

Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened to James Dumas, a 31-year-old accountant from Bloomington, Ill. Dumas, who first called Ephemeral's reservations center on July 12, 2011 to book a flight to Boston, became enamored with the sultry and overly friendly voice of Ephemeral's automated attendant. The highly advanced system features natural language recognition that gives customers the impression they are speaking with a live agent, or, in Dumas' case, a really sexy woman.

"The poor guy called our center about 15 times a day, each time asking the system for its name and if it would meet him for a drink," explains Amy Powers, Ephemeral's Director of Reservations. "Sadly, the system was only programmed to handle reservations-related inquiries, and thus repeatedly responded with, 'I'm sorry, I don't understand your request, could you please repeat it,' which Mr. Dumas interpreted as playful flirting and teasing."

After over 100 calls to the reservations center, Dumas reportedly starting telling friends and family that he was madly in love. Consequently, his mother insisted that he invite the "woman" to dinner. When Dumas called the reservations center to extend the invitation, the speech recognition system – which had just received a new upgrade that expanded its vocabulary from 10,000 to 15,000 words – told him that it had to wash its hair that night. Enraged by and despondent over the torturous game of "hard-to-get" he had endured, Dumas told the system that he would stay on the line and hold his breath until he received a "yes." Eight minutes later, he was gone.

Although Ephemeral Airlines was full of remorse over the tragedy, the company found solace in the fact that that its very expensive speech app was good enough to dupe a human. "We are deeply saddened by Mr. Dumas' untimely demise," said Brian Richardson, spokesman for Ephemeral. "And while our thoughts and prayers are with his family, we are tickled over the ROI we expect to see from this new technology."

To ensure that a similar incident does not occur in the future, the airline is looking into replacing the current voice of its speech system with that of comedienne Kathy Griffin.

Contact Center Consultant Wins "Nobel Prize for Ambiguity"

After years of penning obscure white papers and books, leading non-distinct seminars, and providing incomparably vague advice to clients, contact center consultant Stephen Blank has finally earned the recognition he deserves. Yesterday, Blank was awarded the Nobel Prize for Ambiguity – a new category in the prestigious award series – for his groundbreaking ability to gain a huge professional following and earn a substantial income without actually providing any specific insights or actionable practices to speak of.

Blank was up against some worthy adversaries for the award – including five multinational CEOs, three U.S. governors and the guy who coined the term "mission-critical." Experts believe that what likely tipped the scales in Blank's favor was his best-seller, Applauding World-Class, Best-of-Breed, Synergistic Customer Care Organizations.

During his acceptance speech, Blank said that it was difficult to describe exactly what he was feeling, and then spent a minute thanking nobody in particular for helping him earn such an honor.


In many customers’ minds, this three-letter acronym is a four-letter word. It’s not uncommon for callers to mutter a diverse range of other forbidden words whenever interacting – or trying to interact – with a contact center’s IVR system.

But IVR is not deserving of such hatred. Unlike reality TV stars, IVR systems are not inherently flawed or evil, nor are the companies that use an IVR to front-end their contact centers. 

The reason why the general public’s perception of IVR is so negative is that so few of the systems that the public has encountered have been designed properly by the humans behind the scene. The technology itself has tons of potential; it’s what’s dumped into it by organizations overly eager to enjoy the cost-saving benefits of phone-based self-service that makes the machines such monsters.

Not all IVR systems in existence today are so beastly. Some, in fact, not only play nice with customers, they delight them and keep them coming back for more. So how have the owners of these much-maligned systems succeeded in getting callers to drop their pitchforks and torches and embrace IVR?

By adopting the following key practices, all of which I stole from a host of IVR experts and now pass off as my own:

Adhere to the fundamentals of IVR menu design. Most of what irritates and confounds customers with regard to IVR can be easily avoided. Callers often opt out of the system or hang up due to too many menu choices, confusing phrasing/commands, and fear of dying alone in IVR hell.

Here are a handful of essential menu features and functions common to the best-designed IVR applications:

• No more than four or five menu options
• The ability to easily skip ahead to desired menu choices (e.g., having the system recognize that the customer pressed “3” or said what they wanted before the system presented such options)
• Use of the same clear, professional recorded voice throughout the IVR
• (For touchtone systems specifically) Giving a description of an action/option prior to telling the caller what key to press for that action/option (e.g., “To check your balance without bothering one of our expensive agents, press ‘1’”; NOT “Press ‘1’ to check your balance without bothering one of our expensive agents.”) 
• The ability to opt out to and curse directly at a live agent at any time

Invest in advanced speech recognition. In leading contact centers, traditional touchtone IVR systems are being replaced by sleeker and sexier speech-enabled solutions. While you may not want to listen to a writer who thinks that IVR can be sleek or sexy, you should, as today’s advanced speech recognition (ASR) solutions have helped many customer care organizations vastly improve self-service, and, consequently, reduce the number of death threats their IVR system receives each day.  

I know, I know, you are thinking about how many dozens of times in the past 10-15 years you have read an article or seen a conference session titled something like, “Speech Recognition Revolutionizing Self-Service” only to find that the technology wasn’t quite up to par with the promise. Such hype used to annoy me, too. But the truth is, speech technology has rapidly matured in recent years, and is more than ready for prime time. Even if you don’t have it in your contact center, you have certainly used it while calling others, and you’ve likely witnessed it working well. 

Powered by natural language processing, ASR systems provide a much more personalized and human experience than traditional touchtone ever could. Traditional touchtone is like interacting with Dan Rathers, while ASR is like talking to Oprah. Even more importantly, ASR-driven IVR systems enable contact centers to vastly reduce the number of steps callers must take to get what they need. Customers can cut through unnecessary menu options by saying exactly what they want (e.g., “I would like the address of your call center so that I can punch the last agent I spoke to in the face”). 

NOTE: To help you better understand speech technology and achieve optimal results with your speech-enabled IVR system, I recommend you get a copy of one or both of Bruce Balentine’s books:

1) It’s Better to Be a Good Machine than a Bad Person
2) How to Build a Speech Recognition Application

Bruce is one of the smartest and funniest “techies” I know. He has no allegiances to any speech vendors, and thus never pushes any particular products.

Use CTI to ensure smooth, smart transfers. Even if your IVR system is perfectly designed and features the universally appealing voice of James Earl Jones, many callers will still want to – or need to – speak to a live agent featuring the universally less-appealing voice of a live agent. And when this happens, what’s universally aggravating to callers is – after providing the IVR with their name, account number, social security number, height, weight and blood type – having to repeat the very same information to the agent to whom their call is transferred.

To avoid such enraging redundancy – and to shorten call lengths/reduce costs – leading contact centers incorporate CTI (computer telephony integration) technology into their IVR system. These applications integrate the voice and data portions of the call, then, with the help of magic fairies, deliver that information directly to the desktop of the agent handling the call. With today’s technologies, it’s really quite simple (though, granted, not always cheap), and the impact on the customer experience is immense. Rather than the caller starting off their live-agent interaction with a loud sigh or groan, they start off with the feeling that the company might actually have a soul.

Regularly test and monitor the system. Top contact centers keep a close eye on IVR function and callers’ interactions with the system to ensure optimum functionality and customer experiences. 

One essential practice is load-testing any new IVR system prior to making it “open for business”. This involves duplicating actual call volumes and pinpointing any system snags, glitches or outright errors that could jam up the system and drive callers nuts.

Once the IVR system is up and running, leading contact centers frequently test it by “playing customer” – calling the center just as a customer would, then evaluating things like menu logic and speech recognition performance, as well as hold times and call-routing precision after opting out of the IVR. To give such testing a truly authentic feel, the tester – after opting out of the system and being transferred to an agent – proceeds to express to the agent how he’d rather have oral surgery without any anesthesia than have to interact with the IVR ever again.

Some contact centers have invested in solutions that automate the IVR-testing process. These potent diagnostic tools are able to dial in and navigate through an interactive voice transaction just as a real caller would – except with far less swearing – and can track and report on key quality and efficiency issues. Many other centers gain the same IVR-testing power by contracting with a third-party vendor that specializes in testing self-service systems.

Internal IVR testing alone is insufficient to ensure optimal customer experiences with the IVR. The best contact centers extend their call monitoring process to the self-service side. Quality specialists listen to live or recorded customer-IVR interactions and evaluate how easy it is for customers to navigate the system and complete transactions without agent assistance, as well as how effectively the IVR routes each call when a live agent is requested or required. Today’s advanced quality monitoring systems can be programmed to alert QA staff whenever a caller gets entangled in the IVR or seems to get confused during the transaction. Such alerts enable the specialist – after having a laugh with his peers over the customer’s audible expletives – to fix any system glitches and perhaps contact the customer directly to repair the damaged relationship.