I recently read an article in a newsletter from marketing expert Dave Croydon, Hilltop Consultancy. David was voicing his concern that automated telephone systems were of little benefit to customers, going as far as to call them a “customer disservice”.

The article mentioned that we wouldn’t accept it from the emergency services yet we’re already having to. My Mum broke her ankle last year and called me. Being made of stronger stuff than some of the celebrity icons of today, Mum didn’t want to bother the Ambulance service until she was sure it was broken. It was and I dialed the famous three digits, something we all dread.

How annoying to be put on hold by an automated system that informed me I was in a queue, at 9am on a Thursday morning. I was very, very annoyed yet I didn’t want Mum to be any more concerned than she already was. Realising a broken ankle meant less amenity than usual was a kick in the teeth for a 67 year old, I gritted my teeth and bit my tongue.

Thankfully, after my call was answered by a human the paramedic turned up on a bicycle within 3 minutes. This shows what can be achieved with technology when it’s entirely focused on results for the customer.

Whilst at the hospital, pain killers, X-rays and a cast were in order, and this gave me time to think on the situation. Apart from the value of living close to my Mum, I concluded that these automated systems can only be successful when you have a captive market — like the NHS. Whatever service you choose, if you don’t like the system you find another option.

Did anyone ever say that they wanted to be charged not to speak to the person that could answer their query? It’s even more expensive if using a mobile. At this stage I should tell you about “say no to 0870“, a website that gives you the real number yet will not get you past the systems. I dislike calling these numbers and will select suppliers accordingly. My bank will be the first after a series of unanswered calls which I see as withdrawals from my personal time bank.

So what can you do to improve the service you offer? First things first, ask your customers what they would prefer. If they ask for an automated system, go for it. If not, enthuse those that work for you or record a new voicemail or message that gives callers the option to leave a message detailing when they want to hear from you as well as the nature of their call with their name and number. Or if you want to impress and have £35 per week in your marketing budget arrange for the phone to be answered by a human being by investing in an answering service. They will answer the call, ask when the call should be returned and send you the details by email or text. Calling back at a random time doesn’t make you efficient so call back when it’s good for them — it will save both of you time.

For me, these services are not there to give the impression you have a swanky office yet they are a great way of greeting your customers when you can’t. They simply advise the caller that you’re busy and will call back at a time convenient to them, as long as it’s reasonable, or give them the opportunity to reach you direct on another number, perhaps your mobile.

It’s my belief that automated systems are not good for the customer as they don’t provide a service. The only time they are useful is when the offer at the end of the line is worth the wait. Orderly Q operates a system that gives the caller reliable information on how quickly the call will be answered and the opportunity to leave a message requesting a call back – at a pre-determined time. The only time the other systems are acceptable is if they provide information or are able to signpost unimportant services out of hours.

Top Tip

At all other times it’s best to have the human touch and provide the personal service that you want to.