Tips for friendly telephone services [Archives:2005/814/Education]

February 7 2005

By Ms. Lakshmi Devi P K
Asst Brand Manager
Mam International Corporation
Sana'a – Yemen
[email protected]

Telephone services, otherwise known as “voice mail”, are usually hard to use and frustrating. There are certain guidelines that make such systems more user-friendly, though.

Most people in the modern world have encountered an automatic telephone service, or “voice mail”. Usually, these are very complicated systems that have a terrible interface. Why? Users can't understand the whole thing; they have no way of knowing where they want to navigate to in the service.

In saying that, users are told the “options” that are available to them, but they can't get any kind of snapshot mental model that will help them find what they're looking for. If anything is worded strangely, or if whatever they're looking for is somewhat ambiguous and could be found in any number of “menus”, they'll probably never find it, and they'll probably end up doing one of the following things:

– quitting (giving up on the service)

– abandoning (giving up on the company or product altogether)

– wasting time (either trying to do something another way by themselves, or by using a more traditional and reliable method of communication with the business or service)

– complaining (telling the fallback human operators or customer service representatives how bad the telephone service is)

Let me make one thing clear: in all circumstances, I recommend a human instead of any kind of automatic telephone system because humans are better at explaining things and solving problems than are recordings. But, there are some cases in which an automatic telephone service of some kind is necessary or preferred by businesses, especially for cost reasons. So, how do you do it right?

Some practical hints

There are lots of ways to improve telephone services for users. Some of these are quite obvious, but I'll reiterate them for the benefit of common people everywhere:

– Always wear a smile on your face while handling calls

– use short words, and plain language

– let users talk to a human being if they become frustrated

– use two levels of hierarchy or less (so that users won't get lost)

– do research to determine user goals, and design a streamlined service that helps users reach those goals (don't bog users down with options they will likely never choose)

– use functional and descriptive welcome messages that don't contain slogans

– always offer hold music and let users choose a style of music they prefer, instead of letting the call turn into “dead air” (no feedback from the phone indicates to users that something is wrong or that the call has been dropped)

They're here to stay, so they'd better be useful

Telephone services are not going away, but they could start getting better any time now. If companies want to streamline customer support or messaging services, and save money, they have to make sure that their telephone services are effective. If not, they'll have a lot of unhappy customers (or employees) on their hands. Significant services require a lot of research and meticulously refined interaction.