Can an Automated Telephone System Provide Excellent Customer Service?

I will be branded biased, since I have worked in the telecom industry for more than 10 years, but yes, I do believe automate attendants, designed correctly, can provide excellent customer service. I am probably in the minority, but even before my telecom career commenced, I often preferred to hear a recorded voice answer the phone. A good automated system allows me to reach my destination and/or find the information I need more quickly and efficiently in some cases than dealing with a live person.

Obviously many voice menus answering customers' calls today are not user friendly, hence the inclination to answer this question with an emphatic "No!" But a few design tips can improve even the simplest of voice mail systems answering your customers' calls.

What is an Automated Attendant?

Simply, an automated attendant is a non-human that answers telephone calls and provides options for connecting to a final destination without the intervention of a traditional receptionist. You might be connected to a specific person's extension, to an informational message, or to a telephone number in another office.

This article targets small and mid-size businesses. Large corporations have advanced and complicated systems that typically require highly skilled programmers. Many systems for small and mid size businesses are designed to be user-programmed, and with a bit of study, the business owner has considerable control over the usefulness of their automated attendant.

Automated Attendant Menu Design Tips

KISS. The "keep it simple, stupid" rule works with automated attendant design just as well as it does in the rest of the world. Keep the number of options offered in a greeting under five. If you need to offer more than five options, utilize submenus, and again, keep the number of submenu options under five.

In your main greeting, offer the option of entering your party's extension first. Repeat callers will know or learn the extension of the person they wish to reach, and they will appreciate not having to listen to all of the options each time they call.

Offer a spell by name directory. Consider how your callers know your employees-do they recognize first names or last names? Some systems only allow you to spell one or the other, and often the directory works in conjunction with labeling on individual mailboxes, so consider how you want to use the directory early in your planning stages. If your callers know you by first name, you don't want to set up all of your mailboxes with last names.

For very small offices, with six to eight people or less, a submenu can be utilized to provide a directly. Your greeting for this submenu would sound something like this:

  • For Lucille Ball, Service Manager, press 1
  • For Jonathan Seagull, Sales Representative, press 2
  • For Charlie Brown, Office Manager, press 3

Obviously such a list should not be too long or your caller will be frustrated while waiting for the person they wish to reach to show up in your list.

To whom do most of your callers need to speak? If the vast majority of your callers are looking for service, don't prompt them to transfer to sales first. It is tempting of course, to try to capture the sales audience early in the game, but from the caller's perspective, even hearing the word sales while waiting for a "repair" option is off-putting.

Always give the description first, before the number to be pressed. Do not say "Dial extension 38 to reach the company president". When listening to a list of such instructions, callers do not remember the dial instruction before they hear their destination. Such backwards instructions are especially frustrating when you are re-directing callers to another telephone number all together. An instruction like "Call 555-123-5432 to reach our after hours emergency service" is unfortunately too common.

Be sure the 0 option transfers to a live, knowledgeable, and helpful person. Callers who hate automated attendants typically know that the industry standard is to press 0 for an operator. Do not frustrate such callers further by sending them to another recording.

Note, your 0 option usually shares the same destination as a "time out". In other words, if callers do not press any buttons throughout the duration of your message, the call will transfer as if they pressed 0. This option is left over from the days when such systems accommodated rotary dial callers.

Finally, give callers the option to repeat each greeting. This is especially important when providing informational greetings, such as mailing address or fax number, as well as after hours emergency numbers.

Tips for Recording Greetings

Ideally, if you are installing a new system, have a recognized voice from your company record your greetings. You can also hire professionals, and sometimes your installer will be happy to record your greetings, but when an employee or even the small business owner takes the time to carefully record their own greetings, the degree of familiarity for your callers helps ease the transition from live receptionist to the automated world.

Choose a quiet location with minimal background noise. Background noise can cause interesting problems. I once helped install a new system, and after we "went live", the automated attendant would spontaneously stop in mid-greeting and transfer the caller to the operator. We finally determined that while recording the greeting, the user received an email. The sound of the email alert on their computer was picked up in the greeting, and the tone of the alert matched the touchtone of pressing 0 for the operator. When the recording replayed the tone, the caller was transferred.

Practice! Read the entire script aloud at least three times before you attempt to record. Reading aloud also helps you catch and correct awkward wording in your script.

After recording the greetings, have someone else listen for mistakes rather than listening to the greeting yourself. Most people do not like the sound of their own voices, and if you try to review the greetings yourself, you are more likely to be dissatisfied and re-record.

Unfortunately, "voice mail hell" abounds in today's business world. Like so many modern conveniences, the automated attendant has been abused, but if utilized thoughtfully, such systems can improve the efficiency of routing your incoming calls, without major frustration for your callers.

Copyright Dineane Whitaker 2008 - Please do not copy and paste this article, but feel free to post a link using this url:

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dineane 8 years ago from North Carolina Author

good points, John. Regarging Jonathan Livingston Seagull, someone esle mentioned the book in a Hub recently and for some reason it's stuck in my head...who knows why certain characters pop into mind when I'm trying to create list like that!

John Hewitt jr profile image

John Hewitt jr 5 years ago

I believe it can be. I am a Englishman living in the states for the last 7 years. Some automated systems are fine, but i still get the odd one which cannot understand the British accent lol.

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