The trifecta of stupid phone trees

Phone trees are almost universally hated; one survey of Americans found they topped a list of the most frustrating technologies. 

One of my duties at PayPal was supporting our call center technology, so I became a bit familiar with phone trees (Interactive Voice Response, or IVR). Implemented well, they do cut costs and help a majority of callers get service faster given agent restraints. They are rarely implemented well.

I was reminded of this when I called a support center recently and went through three stupid processes in a row:

1. “Please note our options have changed.” How many times have you heard this at the start of a call? Who on earth is memorizing phone tree options? Even if a few OCD callers remember the options and press the wrong one, it’s not a big deal. They can hit * to go back or call again. Yet, every single caller has to waste a few seconds listening to this.

It seems like some manager decided years ago this would be a good idea and companies have been blindly following ever since. 

2. “Please enter your account number.” Quick: what’s your bank account number?  I’m not asking because I’m a fraudster. I ask because chances are you have no idea. You’d have to look at a check. But plenty of phone trees ask for authentication information you don’t readily know – account #s, company IDs  – when there’s no need to. Most companies have plenty of unique, easily remembered information about you: name, phone #, date of birth, address digits. Most can be entered quickly on a keypad. 

Instead, many companies self-centeredly ask for the IDs they’ve issued, which requires users to search for documentation and again increases frustration and call times.

3. “Please tell us everything we just asked you again.” The coup de grace is when you finally get a human and they ask you for all the same information again. At PayPal, after the IVR asked users to enter a phone #, the first thing a human agent would do is ask for it again. Why? Because our legal guy wanted to make sure the user talking to the agent was the same user who keyed in the info.

Now, I appreciate that PayPal has to take greater security measures than many, but we were wasting 1-2 minutes on every call asking for info (that we shouldn’t have been requiring in the first place) because of this corner case: a user calls PayPal, enters their phone #, and while on hold, a thief steals the phone and continues the call

Seriously, if product managers and lawyers could channel this kind of imagination into creating useful products, every company could be an Apple. (The kicker is that by smart design, PayPal service agents can change relatively little on an account even if a caller is authorized, so the extra verification was doubly unnecessary.)

The sad part is that all of these decisions damage both users and the company. There’s no exploitation for gain here, just dumb inefficiency. It’s no wonder a few startups are solely dedicated to navigating around phone trees. Unfortunately, like most human failures, this is a problem best solved from within.

2 thoughts on “The trifecta of stupid phone trees

  1. Thomas D. May 24, 2009 / 2:54 pm

    typo? unauthorized–>authorized

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