Have you ever called a company, and heard that dreaded response “For xxx, press 1…”? That is known as an IVR (Interactive Voice Response). From the company’s perspective, they are great because it reduces the number of people needed to answer phones. From the caller’s perspective, they can be a mixed blessing.

The thing that bugs me most about them is having to wait for all of the irrelevant options to be listed until I finally hear the option I want. Then you hear an option that might be the thing you are looking for, but it’s not quite, so you hold on for a little bit longer hoping that something better will come along…kind of like dating. And then sometimes you settle for an option, but it turns out not to be the right one for you but you can’t figure out a way to get out of it and go back to another option…also like dating. There is a well-documented way (pdf warning) to get an optimal result 37% of the time, however it only works if you know how many options there are. With an IVR you usually don’t know, so doing complex maths in your head while trying to also follow the options is probably not going to help much.

So how do you solve the problem? One method is to just push zero and hope that it will take you to an operator. There are also websites available that will assist you with getting direct to an operator. Other than that, all I can say is “suck it up, princess”. Unless…

I have seen that some companies have had the foresight to list the options on their website, for example Commonwealth Bank (disclaimer: I am not affiliated with them, am not endorsing them, and do not agree with their practise of paying obscene bonuses to executives during a financial crisis). This is great for callers, as you can navigate quickly and directly to where you want to go.

So why don’t more companies do this? I have worked in organisations with IVRs, but I have never had involvement in the implementation of one, so I can only speculate. I came up with 3 reaons (if you’re in the know let me know, as I’d be interested to learn more):

  1. They didn’t think of it. The least likely answer, but let’s not discount it.
  2. It is too hard, either for technical or business reasons. You wouldn’t think it would be hard, but working in IT. nothing surprises me! Costs of a small change can easily add up, when you factor in analysis, design, documentation, and testing. The people working on the IVR will typically be a completely different group of people to the ones maintaining the website, so that adds an additional layer of administrative effort.
  3. The company doesn’t want callers going directly to the wrong “real people”. IVRs will almost certainly have a path to an operator who will direct calls that don’t fit into any of the categories; if everyone did this it would eliminate the entire purpose of the IVR.

Whichever option you think is most likely will depend on how cynical you are, but if it annoys you enough you could always call and complain.

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