Phone menus mainly waste your time

My heart sinks when I call a company and get the beginnings of a phone menu that requires a series of voice responses or punching in numbers on the keyboard. The reason is that when I call, it is usually because the problem I have cannot be answered by an automated system and requires a human, so I do whatever it takes to short-circuit the system to get one. There is even a website that tells you how to do it for many companies.

It turns out that my loathing of this kind of interactive voice response (IVR) systems is widely shared.

Our survey, funded by the industry group Interactions, sampled 1,321 online respondents who were demographically matched to the overall U.S. population. In addition, we conducted 50 in-depth followup interviews and three focus groups to get a better understanding of the patterns in the survey data.

At the beginning of a customer service experience, 90 percent of our respondents want to speak to a live agent. And no matter how their customer service journey starts – with IVR, email, instant messaging, automated chat, virtual assistants (like Siri and similar voice-controlled mobile apps) or social media – by the end, 83 percent have reached a real, live person. Much as Katz and his colleagues saw in 1997, individuals still overwhelmingly want to deal with a human being rather than a machine. If it doesn’t work easily for them, people do what it takes – within what the system permits – to circumvent automated customer service.

When we asked respondents their opinions about IVRs being the most common entrée to customer service help, the results were almost uniformly negative. Only 10 percent were satisfied with their experience and approximately 35 percent of respondents found the systems difficult to use. Just 3 percent actually liked using the IVR service.

The telling statistic is that 90% of people wanted to speak to a live person and 83% finally did so. This means that all that time spent in navigating the menu was a waste. It may be that the menu helped you get to the right person but in my experience even when you have given all kind of identifying information to the IVR and finally do get a real person on the line, you often have to provide that person with a lot of that information all over again, suggesting that you have not been directed to someone who is a specialist in your case but could have gone to that person directly.

The article provides interesting insights into why we hate IVRs so much.

People also consistently reported their frustration with the robot’s (in)ability to understand them and the need to repeat the same information many times during the interaction without making progress. People still just want to get to a live agent. Overall, respondents reported feeling like the IVR robot is “dragging out the conversation” and forcing them to pick from prompts that don’t really fit their problem. All of this leaves consumers “feel[ing] like I’m being managed,” as one woman described it.

Interestingly, people had strong emotional responses to these experiences. They reported fear about not understanding the prompts or pressing the wrong button, anger and frustration when the IVRs do not lead them to the right place, and an overwhelming sense of stress in general.

I sometimes wonder if the purpose of these IVRs is simply to frustrate people so that they will get fed up and go away and not bother the company.

voice mail


  1. Johnny Vector says

    There is one such system that actually works well enough that I don’t hate it with the burning heat of a thousand blue giant stars: United Airlines.

    Their system used to suck like a black hole, but now it actually does a good job recognizing voice commands, and gets you quickly to where you need to be. In my case it’s always to a person, because otherwise I would have just used the web already, you stupid machine. But I can get to the right person quickly, and when they pick up they already have my reservation open on the screen in front of them.

    I also like that it recognizes my number and assumes to start with that it’s me calling again. (ID is still required, but I don’t have to remember my stupid frequent flier number.)

    Also, IIRC, it no longer does that most annoying of things, starting out with “Did you know you can do most transactions at our website…” Yes, thank you, and if I could change government contract flights via the website I would surely do so. I think they fixed that annoyance when they added the part of recognizing the number I’m calling from.

    So, not perfect, but the best one I’ve dealt with yet. And really surprising, considering how mind-bendingly awful it used to be.

  2. Marshall says

    “People also consistently reported their frustration with the robot’s (in)ability to understand them and the need to repeat the same information many times during the interaction without making progress.”

    I don’t like hearing that this is the main reason, because it’s not at all what grinds my gears when dealing with IVR’s, and I feel that companies will hear this and say, “Oh! All we have to do is improve the voice recognition and people will love them!” The problem is IVRs provide you with a directed graph. You begin at node X and you want to reach node Y, and you have absolutely no idea how to get there, much less if your desired node even exists.

    Currently, people attempt to go from node X (start) to node H (human)--but even THAT can be incredibly frustrating, sometimes required many loops as one slowly learns the layout of the graph.

  3. Johnny Vector says

    Marshall: A very good point. Generally, if my request fit neatly into the hierarchical categories they give me, I would have just used the website. More often than not, the very first set of choices leaves me wondering which one is correct.

    Which is especially annoying when in the end, like the taps for Duff, Duff Lite, and Duff Dry, they all lead to the same place in the end anyway.

    As I understand it, the systems are often trained to recognize frustration, and I have in empirical fact had good luck cursing angrily at the phone and being quickly transferred to a live person. To the point where that’s my typical approach.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Johnny @#3,

    The systems recognize frustration? That’s frustrating because I try to be polite and not let my anger and frustration show in trying to get a human even when taking to a damn machine. So I have actually been slowing myself down!

  5. Marshall says

    Mano: I’m the same way often, in that when I finally reach a service representative, I know that THEY are not the ones who designed the stupid system, so of course I’m not going to yell at them. But at the same time I want them to know that their stupid system sucks and that someone needs to be pressured to change it.

    It’s just overall frustrating, and there’s not much to do except complain to each other.

  6. tecolata says

    Absolute worse is when your email/internet is down and you have to call and spend 45 minutes listening to a machine say “did you know you can use our on line service to solve your problems”!!
    Assholes, if I could get on line I would not be calling you.

  7. Mobius says

    I agree with this completely. Often I find the phone bot to be able to assist with only the simplest of problems, ones I can easily figure out on my own. Either that, or the bot just keep coming back to the same place, going in circles. It seems to take an enormous amount of effort to get a live person on the other end, and sometimes even that doesn’t seem possible.

    As you say, frustrating and stressful.

  8. coragyps says

    “For a list of ways in which technology has not improved your life, press 3 now.”

  9. says

    I got a call the other day from an IVR that wanted to bother me. Normally, I don’t mind chatbots that you have to talk to (except they all suck and I mostly yell “operator” at them) It was the first time I’d been robo-called by an actual robot. When I asked it “how do I know you’re not a robot” it resumed at the beginning of its script. But our first couple of exchanges were plausible.

    The end game on this is that anyone who can afford to will have all their calls human-screened and everyone else will turn their phones off unless they know they want a call. Several young people I know already refuse calls unless they have been txted and have agreed to talk. I am surprised there isn’t an app for that -- something that manages your introductions.

    Brave new world that has such annoying marketing in it.

  10. says

    The one that makes my head explode is when you call and they bounce you from call center to call center and each time they expect you to re-authenticate.

    “I just typed my entire 10 digit account number in and pressed the # key, why is the first thing your call center person going to ask me ‘what’s your account number?'” and how does that save time?

  11. says

    Absolute worse is when your email/internet is down and you have to call and spend 45 minutes listening to a machine say “did you know you can use our on line service to solve your problems”!!

    Verizon are the best at that.
    Call with a problem about your internet service and they’ll cheerfully tell you “for faster service, go to!” (head explodes)

  12. Richard Simons says

    Slightly off-topic, in the days of modems I remember trying to install one with instructions available only over the Internet.

  13. says

    The same can be said of “help” files and “help databases” online. They were created by people who ignorantly believed they had addressed every possible problem or situation and didn’t leave any contacting them when it failed. And the organization of their help files (or phone menus) is based on their own or technical jargon, not by the words that the average person would use. People can’t solve a problem if they don’t know where to look.

    Worse yet, some companies are unwilling to address certain failures of their system and intentionally leave no means of solving it. “Our mistakes are your problem, not ours” is too common an attitude.

  14. Onamission5 says

    Whenever I need to deal with our tech service provider, I call the number and once I am through the preliminary gate keeping immediately start chanting “agent, agent, AGENT.” I used to try to work with the IV menu, but more often than not found myself in a state of swearing and asking for an agent anyway.

    If I have called, that means I have already tried pushing the rest button, I have already turned it off and on again, I have already disconnected every cable, waited 30 seconds, and plugged it all back together. I need a human person to send the relevant signal from their physical location to mine-- something the robot voice on the other end of the line can purportedly do, but which experience tells me won’t usually work unless a real live human does it.

  15. Yellow Thursday says

    I, too, have felt that IVR phone systems and other phone menu systems are designed to cause the caller to give up in frustration. Making me type in my account number, zip code, and last four of my social security number multiple times as they system transfers me to different departments and then having the person who finally comes on ask me for the same information and then verify my address and phone number makes me want to scream in frustration.

    The best ones are those that understand “I want to talk to a person!” and transfer me to an operator. They’re still annoying, but not nearly as bad as some of the others.

  16. leftygomez says

    If I were calling for “my current balance” or some other such data, I wouldn’t mind the IVR, but like most people today, I use the internet for that. It feels like they have set up the IVR for a public that existed twenty years ago, when people might call for routine information that nowadays you’d find on a web page.

    Generally, when I have a non-routine issue that requires a live person, I try the “live chat” feature when it is offered on line, as there is less waiting time than going through the IVR and I don’t have to worry about, e.g., coughing and sending the IVR down the wrong branch of the tree.

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