How not to do voice prompts

Badly designed phone systems really tick me off.

For example, there’s my doctor’s office. The woman who does the prompts for their system is terrible at it. She speaks too slowly, frequently pauses to take a long breath, and drones on forever and ever about unimportant stuff instead of getting you right to the button options. Thankfully I have the options memorized at this point, but gads does that annoy me every single time.

But today’s rant is about my power company. I went to pay the electric and gas bill by phone, but I hate hate hate their phone system. Their customer service line includes a crapload of long pauses, which is odd considering it starts out asking (after a long pause following the obligatory Spanish prompt) whether you’re reporting a life-threatening emergency. But then it starts asking you, slowly, about what account you’re calling from. It takes about five seconds to rattle off four letters of my last name. Not exaggerating.

Once a full minute has gone by while I confirm which account I’m calling from, I get the prompts. But not button prompts, because being able to quickly hit a button would be stupid; they’re all voice response prompts. This system, unlike some nicer ones I’ve dealt with, only responds to specific prompts and will slowly say each one for you. If you hear your option, you can blurt it out, but the system won’t hear you because it’s still too busy talking. So you have to wait through like six options before you can say “Billing and payments.” Enter round two. Again you get a long list of choices where if you interrupt, it will fall on metaphorical deaf ears. “Payments.” So begins round three. More options, more waiting. Finally, after three minutes have been wasted on this call so far, you can say “Pay my bill.”

Fourth round: Choose check or card. Yes, it’s the same stupid voice prompts and you have to wait. Then there’s the account part, which is actually the quickest part of this entire process. And then we hit the ultimate snag: the amount. This isn’t simple voice options, like paying your full balance or a different amount. Oh no. This piece of crap system asks what you want to do, then tells you in mind-numbing pointless detail how you would pay a different amount via the buttons, if you were so inclined, and gives you an example, even though all you’re trying to do is pay the full balance. But you can’t tell it “Full balance” because you have to wait for it to be done talking before it will listen.

This is not how to make an automated phone system. If you’re going to use voice for crap, let it be flexible from the outset by listening for key phrases so it can go straight through the endless prompts. Don’t tell someone how to enter an alternate amount unless they pick that option, for crying out loud. Let the caller interrupt, because their time is valuable and they don’t want to wait five more minutes to hear all the options they’re never going to choose.

What I want to know is, who designed this system, and where is the line to hit them with a bat?

My cable company gets this right. Cable company. Their prompt just asks what you need in a few words. I pay a couple of credit cards by phone, and those are easy too; one is all button-driven and is relatively quick, and the other is voice-driven but is even faster, because again it not only asks up front what I want, but it lets me interrupt at any time. So if they can do it, my electric company can too. How is this even hard?

And come on, if you have such a phone system, don’t use a slow voice! Never use a slow voice! Make it snappy. Build your system around speed, because speed matters. We have important things to do besides pay our bill, like rant about how an epic fail of a system makes it so hard to pay our bill.

This system is also “fun” when you’re reporting a power outage with a dying cell phone.

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About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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