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Don't Call Us

How not to speak to customers

I can’t watch MasterChef.

Nothing to do with the contestants’ tendency to present food combinations that would turn anyone against fusion cooking. And not because I think TV presenting isn’t a natural career for the family of Mr Potato Head.

No, hearing...

44-year-old single mother Kath is wrapping her raw monkfish in pastry, held together by her own spit

...makes me want to vomit for less obvious reasons, as it triggers traumatic memories of a time I would prefer not to revisit.

A time that felt like months – but was around 48 minutes – when I was subject to an experience not dissimilar to Chinese water torture.

In my case, the water was replaced by thankyous and apologies. And the torturer was India Fisher. The voice of MasterChef. And the voice of Nat West's IVR.

I’m sure Ms Fisher is lovely. And she has a very pleasant voice. But once you’ve heard it reciting the same presumptive, disingenuous, unhelpful stock phrases in your ear for 30 seconds, every 30 seconds, it sounds like nails down a blackboard. In the same way that one drop of water on the face can refresh, an endless drip, drip, drip…is torture.

Much has been written about call centres. Often as a cover for inherent racism. That’s not my beef. As long as their scripts are adaptable to my needs, I have no issue with call handlers from any country.

I’m also an advocate for companies who fill the dead time of holding with recorded messages to reassure, inform, educate, or even sell. I’m pretty sure I recommended it as a strategy to many businesses, back when we first realised inbound could be a media channel.

But having a human voice counts for nothing if the words spoken aren’t human too. To think that recording the voice of a person is enough to communicate the personal touch, is to use the tactics, but ignore the strategy.

Voices are left to repeat nothing but empty platitudes and arrogant presumptions. It is worse than saying nothing. The meaningless phrases leave customers feeling patronised, misunderstood, and dismissed. They do nothing to make the business stand out from the crowd, relying on stock phrases copied, pasted, and recorded by every other voice-over artist for every other brand.

The Words to Avoid

"Did you know, you can do many things online?”

Even if I didn't know, I would likely have guessed. You can be confident that I have heard of this mysterious interweb of which you speak.

In 2020, 96% of households in Great Britain had internet access. Even within the lowest proportion, the over 65s, it was 80% of households. Three-quarters of all adults used internet banking.

If I am hearing this message, it is safe to assume I already know what the internet does. Given the choice, it’s probable that I would be online right now if that were a way to resolve my issue.

That I am now on the telephone means it's not unreasonable to imply I have already been to your website. This suggests I have either been directed to call the number by your own online service, or I could not find the service or information I need.

Neither of these scenarios is resolved by telling me I "can do many things online". Repeating the message many times implies not only that I am a Luddite, but that I am also deaf. It does nothing to increase my brand warmth.

Of course, I could be one of the 20-25% who aren’t online, or at least not banking online. (It’s likely these figures overlap). That would make me not tech-savvy, or at least not “tech-comfortable”. A voice telling me what I can do online will not be the key that unlocks this barrier. So again the message is rendered pointless.

And no matter what the problem is, sometimes people just need the reassurance of a human voice. If you truly care about your customers as much as your Covid-themed advertising says you do, this is as important a demonstration of that care as the issuing of business loans.

"In these unprecedented times, please only call if it is essential."

Clearly specific to the last twelve months, this challenges the validity of the caller’s reasons.

It carries an implied threat, like being charged for wasting police time. No matter how simple you may think the solution, my call is important enough for me to have dialled your number.

That alone should be enough.

I also struggle to make the correlation between Covid and call centres specifically. I would have thought the switch from taking calls in an office to taking them at home would require only minor changes. The only impact on call volume management may be:

  • An increase in skiving caused by the removal of an over-promoted twenty-year-old manager hurrying things up to meet weekly targets.

  • An increase in sickness caused by the virus itself.

As far as I can see, the second point does not differ for any other job role.

And the former means you should look at how you motivate staff.

"Thank you for your patience/understanding.”

Thanking me for something you can only presume, or hope is a sure way to make me angry. The condescension implies that you are grateful that I can actually understan the situation at all.

Let’s just take a moment to look at the facts.

You know that I have called. You know I am still on the line. You know I have been waiting long enough to get this message.

And that is all you know.

There is nothing within the knowledge you have, that tells you how I am feeling. Your use of the word ‘patience’ acknowledges that being on hold is a ‘difficult or annoying situation or task’ (Merriam-Webster). For me to be patient, I need to be calm, without complaint, loss of temper or irritation.

After holding for any level of time, that is fairly unlikely.

For me to be understanding requires that I believe your situation is more important than mine. And questions my intelligence.

The arrogance of the presumptive thanks has the opposite effect that any display of gratitude or appreciation may have hoped for. It will quickly erode any patience I may have had. It is as though you are prodding me with the stick of thanks to see if I dare not give you anything to be thankful for.

"We understand/appreciate…"

These words may be followed by many things, but the problem remains the same.

You have not spoken to me. You don't know the reason for my call. It is therefore impossible for you to understand anything about me right now.

When you speak to me, you may understand the logistical impact of my situation. You won't understand or appreciate the personal impact.

The best you can say is that you understand how other people feel based on your experience of working with other people.

And that isn't very snappy. So don't say it at all.

I am not other people. Don't assume to understand me.

Intellectually, I know you will get what I need sorted. That is why I have called. I do not expect or need unfounded empathy.

And when you appreciate my difficult situation but can’t help, it is the equivalent of pointing, laughing, and saying, “Tough shit, mister”.

Then there is the sentence that is used by almost every company with an IVR, even though it has zero meaning. We accept its existence as though it is a prerequisite that legally has to be included. And there is not a shred of value in a single word.

The phrase?

"Your call is important, and we are doing everything we can to answer it as soon as possible."

Let’s break it down into its parts:

Your call is important…

I know. There is no reason on earth I would have called you otherwise.

Not meaning to be rude, but I don’t care how you are or what you’re doing this weekend.

We are doing everything we can…

You're not.

You are just not.

That doesn't mean there's more you should do, but there is always more you can do.

You could have removed the issue. You could have had a clearer website. Specifically, you could have every member of the board working on the phone lines right now.

I don't expect you to do any of this. I know a little of how business cases work. But don't tell me you are doing everything you can because you're not.

As soon…

The etymology of soon shows that it originated from sona in Old English, which came from the German san, meaning immediately.

Far from meaning something is going to happen at that very instant, soon is now taken to mean some point in the near future. The proximity of the near future to now will be defined in the mind of the speaker and could be any number. This may differ from the listener’s expectations.

The soon in 'See You Soon’, can be.

  • 10 minutes - when I am just getting off the bus at the bottom of your road.

  • A few days - when talking about your birthday plans this weekend.

  • A month or more - when talking vaguely of catching up.

  • Two or three years - when anticipating an important birthday or anniversary.

  • Five seconds - when guessing how long it will be before this hold music reduces me to tears.

…as possible.

This increases the subjectivity of the preceding ‘as soon’. It seems to put parameters around the time, but it is a simile without a comparative.

What is the possible that you will be as soon as?

With nothing finite against which it can be compared, the statement becomes circuitous. It is self-defining. Making it useless nonsense.

The truth of the statement is just "We will answer the call when we answer the call".

This may seem rude.

In Summary

The language you use on your IVR has an impact on the customers who hear it every day.

Look at your script and to every line, ask why? When you can't answer, the words should be removed. Specifically:

  • Don't Patronise...specifically when it comes to the internet

  • Don't Understand...what you can't know

  • Don't anyone feels

  • Don't Thank...for what you presume

  • Doing Everything You an impossibility

  • As Soon As an undefinable period of time

You may worry about losing callers holding on a quiet line, but it isn't difficult to replace these vapid words with simple, honest, human statements.

You can turn ‘customer-centric’ from something you write on a flip chart to something you act on. Just ask yourself how you would empathise.

Some Thought Starters

  • “Few people like to spend their time on hold for an (institution), so we are sorry you’ve had to call.”

  • “If you’re able to bear with us, someone will definitely get to you.”

  • “If your call isn’t time-specific, try at our less-busy times. Though these can vary, last week we were quieter between xx and xx on xxxday,”

  • “If you’d prefer the line to be silent, press 1. But don’t forget to listen out for a friendly human voice or you’ll kick yourself. If you can go hands-free, pop an earphone in and get on with something more fun in the meantime.”

  • “If you’d like some music to play while you wait, you can choose by pressing 1 for covers of pop from the last decade, 2 for covers of 80s classics, 3 for classical tunes that you sort of recognise but you’re not sure where from, or 4 for Nana Mouskouri.”

  • “To make the most of your time, you can press 1 for the latest news headlines, 2 for the weather forecast, 3 for celebrity news, or 4 for a pop quiz.”

These are all possible and fairly simple to execute. Some companies are doing variations already. But many more are wasting time and losing customers by not talking to them as actual people talk to actual people.

It doesn't take much to put the personality back into your business.

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