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.

American Inventor shows execution is everything

American Inventor, ABC’s spin-off of American Idol for inventors, had the right ingredients: engaging personalities, emotional investment, and a core concept (evaluating ideas) that every viewing demographic can enjoy. I was skeptical of the show’s storyline potential – iterations of a product could get dull – but with Idol’s Simon Cowell producing, I hoped the show would be well-done and maybe inspire a mainsream wave of interest in inventing.

I lasted thirty minutes before I had to click off (I later endured the rest with the grace of Tivo). How could a seasoned team of producers make so many mistakes? Here’s a rundown:

(note: Make has a full recap of the show with screenshots)

1. Painfully transparent manipulation. Few things offend like blatant manipulation and Inventor unforunately nailed that cold with consistently hokey backdrop music and more crying than a Kleenex commercial. The overkill was especially strange considering Inventor’s most likely loyal audience – pragmatic, technical, and business types with low tolerance for BS. Haven’t all the incarnations of Extreme Makeover and Bachelor saturated the sap market?

2. Too little substance. As inventor judge Doug Hall said, when you have substance, sell substance. Inventor has compelling substance – inventions – which can be shown and judged quickly. Yet Inventor’s two-hour premiere featured only twenty inventions – one invention every six minutes – with more than half the time spent on the inventors themselves. The inventor’s background and motivation is important to build drama and a relationship with viewers, but more than half the show is too much for a show about ideas. Inventor should model Queer Eye, which gets this right with many snippets of funny advice, mixed frugally with dramatic segments about the advisee’s story.

3. Insight lite. The show’s biggest missed opportunity was failing to teach while entertaining. A main appeal of Queer Eye is its didactic peppering of good advice with humor. Inventor could have engaged viewers with insights in several fields (marketing, engineering, finance), but judges instead dismissed ideas with empty critiques like “I don’t see it” or “it’s not good enough”. (Businessman Peter Jones had one rare tip, noting that a consumed product generates repeated purchases.)

4. Inconsistent judging. I’m sure even hardy VCs would get a little bleary after hundreds of two-minute pitches but the judges were inconsistent. The fully-packaged snow globes were unanimously approved while the polished morality video for kids was nixed as too developed. Two contestants were openly approved not for their product but their personality, yet the most impressive inventor of the show, a charismatic and articulate 14-year-old, was voted off because his portable air conditioner for dogs was marginal.

5. Unclear criteria. The show never clearly stated how ideas would be judged. The judges occasionally said innovation and business potential were important but these were not fully explained – does innovation mean the idea can’t be on the market, can’t be previously patented, or just unknown to the judges? Does unit sales, dollar sales, or profit matter most? Do liability or barriers to entry matter? How much does presentation? This may seem nit-picky but without clear criteria, the judging seemed sloppy and random.

It’s frustrating to see a good idea executed so poorly, an all-too-familiar problem in inventing.