Appointment Reminders: Please Stop Calling Me

Though I have terrible teeth (and even worse brushing habits), I have a pretty good dentist. His practice is the typical small-business venture, and like most in the medical profession, getting people to show up to have their teeth cleaned is like, well, pulling teeth.

Thus his assistant gets the lucky job of calling people and reminding them to come in. She’s nice, of course, but like most patients, I always let the call go to voice mail.

Personally, I’d rather just have an automated text reminder. It just makes more sense: my day doesn’t get interrupted to have an awkward phone conversation about my not-so-stellar fight against cavities, and I can text back my confirmation or need to reschedule quickly.

In fact, I could see a lot of medical-related scenarios where texting makes more sense than forcing nurses and/or doctors to spend all day on the phone:

  • Prescription pick-up: “Your laxative prescription from Dr. Professional is ready for pick up at Corner Drug Store
  • Data Collection: “Please text in your blood-sugar level for today.”
  • Lab Results: “Your blood work has been reviewed, and it turns out you’re not a werewolf.”

A Q&A with Ashley Verrill about Proactive Customer Service

A couple weeks ago, I came across an article from Software Advice called How US Airways Delivers Proactive Customer Service Using Their IVR by Ashley Verrill. I thought that it is spot on with our belief that there has got to be a better way to build phone systems. It gives a lot of great practical tips for anyone who is trying to build out a smart IVR. So we called up Ashley to dig in a little further for our readers. Enjoy!

This was one of the most thorough and helpful “how-to” articles on IVRs that I have read in a long time. What stands out to me is how you detail the processes and measurements that any company can begin implementing now to improve their phone system. What inspired you to write this?

Thank you very much! This topic basically emerged out of a previous article I’d written on proactive customer service that resonated really well with my blog audience. It was really high-level, so with my next article I wanted to drill into one tactic really specifically. I’d read an article about what US Airways was doing with their IVR and thought it would make for an interesting how-to piece for those looking to provide more proactive customer service via their voice response system. It’s not truly proactive service in the sense that’s it’s solving the customer’s problem before they have to reach out to you (or in some cases, before they even know they have a problem), but it was an interesting take on the idea; not to mention just a really cool use of the technology. In general, I see more and more discussions about proactive customer service. I expect it to continue to be a hot topic among customer service / customer experience folks.

There have been companies like GetHuman that have risen up to help people bypass phone trees and get right to a human. Do you see proactive solutions being the answer to people screaming into their phone “operator!” in frustration?

Yes and no. Yes in the fact that systems like US Airways’ immediately recognize the caller by their phone number and suggest a solution based on where they are in the customer lifecycle; so, basically they never have to play around in the IVR, they immediately get the solution they most likely called for. I say most likely, because there are still cases, of course, where the customer deviates from the usual reason why they would call at that time. In these cases, the customer then will have to click through to another option to talk to a live agent, or they might abandon the call altogether, which is not proactive customer service. I said no because proactive customer service in the true sense, as I mentioned, involves reaching out to customers before they have to call you. To be truly proactive, you need more than new software. You need the initiative to look at your customer lifecycle and identify those places where customers are most likely to reach out to you for support, then find ways you can preempt their outreach. Until you do this, the technology will be completely useless to you.

This technology has been around for a couple decades, but it seems that only a handful of companies seem to really do it (like US Airways). For the few proactive IVRs that I have experienced, they have always delighted me as a customer. What do you see as some of the biggest reasons why more companies haven’t implemented this when the effect can be so positive for customer satisfaction?

A couple of reasons. It used to be that customer service was really just seen as a “have to have,” where the goal was to provide the minimal amount possible for solving the customer’s issue in the least costly way possible. Now, companies are realizing more and more the value in increasing customer satisfaction even one percentage point. We are entering the age of the customer experience, which means companies see this as an area of strategic growth, and as a result, investment. Finding ways to solve your customers issues faster is one way to increase their satisfaction. The second reason why I think more haven’t adopted this technology, or at least not in the way US Airways has, is because only recently has speech recognition and Natural Language Processing progressed to the degree to where this technology does really work well. People ask questions in lots of different ways — NLP technology has gotten progressively better by literally learning these variations in the way people talk. This prevents customers from having to repeat their question, or be transferred to an operator when the IVR can’t understand them, which is frustrating. So that’s another reason.

I used to consult with organizations who were focused on improving user experience. What struck me as strange was that marketing and UX departments almost always focused on apps or the web and ignored the phone system which can have as much if not more impact on the brand experience as other mediums. How can proactive phone systems help the brand experience?

I totally agree. Everyone talks about the increase of self service online, but phone is still the most important channel. Not only that, with so much business moving online, the phone experience might be your only chance to have a really personal connection with the customer, so you better make it a good one. These experiences can determine whether or not that person becomes a brand advocate or a detractor. And in the age of social media, word-of-mouth marketing is more important that ever. Customers are paying less and less attention to traditional forms of marketing, while paying more attention to what their friends, family, and social circles say about your brand. Proactive phone systems impact the brand experience in that they demonstrate to the customer how easy (or difficult) it is to do business with you. Another buzzword I hear thrown around a lot these days is “low-effort” customer service. There was a Harvard Business Review article that talked about “Stop trying to delight your customers.” They care more about you reducing the amount of effort it takes for them to get what they want from you. A system like US Airways says to customers that they are really easy to do business with. But again, I really think companies can even take it one step further by proactively pushing information to the customer. For example, one of the most common reasons customers call US Airways is to check on the status of their flight. When a customer calls, the system recognizes their phone number and sees in their purchase history that they have a flight that day, so it proactively suggests providing them an update on their flight to Atlanta that day, or whatever. What if instead, the system just sent them a text message with their flight information, before they even called? I see that as really going above and beyond.

Based on your customer lifecycle section, in our experience they may be calling in for reasons that span many departments (sales, technical support, hr). The person in charge of building the IVR may not be in a position to bring these departments together. What person or role within an organization can help to tie these departments together in order to provide a proactive IVR that becomes multi-departmental?

That’s a really good observation, and to be honest, I don’t think there is one position that launches these kind of initiatives. At US Airways, I talked to the vice president of reservations and customer planning. It made sense that he led the project because his department would be most impacted by customers using IVRs. In other organizations, it might be someone like an IT director or CIO. Or, as I mentioned, a lot of times these purchases come out a of a strategic customer experience project. So it might even be a project manager.

In your section on ROI, you mention some great measurements to determine if the system is doing its job. One that has been of primary concern to many of our customers is simply “have we addressed the needs of everyone who is trying to contact us.” In a proactive system it might be hard to distinguish “they hung up satisfied” vs “they hung up dissatisfied.” Are they any tricks or methods (like surveys) to distinguish between the two?

If someone hangs up before talking to someone, or responding to a proactive offer, this would be considered abandoning the call (I think I mentioned abandonment rate). That’s is bad. That means that the proactive solution you offered didn’t help them, or they just didn’t like the idea of using an automated system — they want to talk to someone. Some people are like that, they just want to talk to someone. As for calls where they do reach a solution, you can ask after the proactive answer is suggested, “Did this provide you what you are looking for?” Then you can easily see in your analytics the percentage of calls where the customer reached the right solution, or they had to be transferred to an agent. Then, of course, there’s always NPS surveys, although I would be really careful about who and how often you send these.

Over the past decade, there has been such a shift within organizations toward reducing the phone and increasing web self-service or web chat. You have effectively shown that there is still a lot of room to innovate on the phone. Is there a renewed trend in improving the phone experience rather than trying to get people away from it?

I don’t know if I’d say renewed, as much as continued. I think most companies recognize that phone will always be a fact of life. I still think there is a lot of companies out there that don’t realize there really is still innovation in this arena, which is another reason why I wanted to write this article.

Is Your Company Making These Web Chat Mistakes?

These days it is pretty common to find a live chat option when it comes to customer support. In theory, the idea is great and has clear advantages over traditional methods of phone support. One, it’s more efficient– customer service reps can provide support for multiple people at a time. Great! Two, Call center employees don’t necessarily have to come into the center to perform Web chat duties – so long as they have an active Internet connection, they can work from home on their own time, which typically means lower costs. Awesome! And more so than anything, it provides a fast, convenient form of communication that will make customers happy, right? Wrong. All it takes it a quick Google search to see the customer service blunders that have occurred when web chat fails. So, if you’re looking to avoid your business being associated with poor customer service, check out the following reasons not to solely rely on a Web chat system for your contact center:

1)    Bad Customer Experience

Considering the one of the main advantages of live chat is to provide customers with a better experience, it’s unfortunate that so many companies fail to do so. A common issue we’ve seen is the dreaded “no agents available”. Nothing is worse than building up a customer’s expectations only to let them down. If you’re going to offer live chat, it’s crucial to make sure your web chat system works correctly and is staffed appropriately. At the very least, make sure to offer customers at least one channel of communication so they are able to get their problems resolved. A great option could be to allow them to SMS text a customer service representative instead.

2)    Low Customer Satisfaction

Not surprisingly, when a customer had a bad experience, they’re usually not going to be very happy afterwards.  Remember that the customer is only engaging with the Web chat window for a very specific purpose. They might be trying to get technical support for a product they purchased, ask a follow up question to something they called about previously or maybe they just want to find out a quick bit of information about a specific topic. For whatever the reason, the Web chat client needs to make the customer feel fulfilled when everything is said and done or it will have all been for nothing. Every inherent benefit to your call center that Web chat communication has to offer isn’t worth a thing if the customer doesn’t feel they’ve gotten what they were after.

3)    Poor Retention rates

So your customer has a bad experience that leaves them unsatisfied with your support service. It’s pretty easy to see how that can quickly lead to poor customer retention rates. A support chat may be a customer’s first impression of your company’s Web presence. If they are immediately dissatisfied with the Web chat experience or feel like it was too difficult to find the information they were after, they aren’t going to return to it in the future. Not only that, they may never return to your site at all… or purchase anything from your company again. According to the 2011 Customer Experience Impact Report, 89 percent of consumers began doing business with a competitor following a poor customer experience. That’s pretty scary.

With all that being said, live support chat options can be a great way to interact with customers. The caveat here is that if you’re going to offer web chat, make sure you’re doing it right. And remember if you’re trying to keep your customers happy, web chat should be one of many channels of communications offered for customer service, not the only channel offered. When combined with SMS chat and properly employed IVR, you will be able to create a multichannel experience that leaves customers feeling delighted.