IVRs vs. offshore call center operators - which would you rather deal with?

* Getting your problems solved over the phone is sometimes not as easy as it should be

There has been much discussion over offshore call center outsourcing. Sometimes the focus is the effect on jobs, other times the focus is the quality of customer service. I wrote about customer service issues back in October, suggesting that customer backlash from language and quality issues could cause some companies to reconsider taking their call center offshore. More recently, I have seen more customer frustration over interactive voice response.

IVRs and offshoring are related as both are used by companies to reduce their customer service costs. Often times, IVRs front-end call center staff, whether in-house or outsourced staff. While offshoring takes advantage of lower cost resources, IVRs automate customer routing and provide self-help for many common functions with the intent of reducing human operator call time. Both can irritate customers and both have proliferated.

Most call center operations have significant training programs that can include language training to minimize accents and ensure good processes and procedures are being used. Personally I have had more positive experiences than bad experiences with offshore call centers - those where I could tell they were offshore. I'm sure there were times when I was dealing with an offshore call center and could not tell.

On one technical support call, I was obviously dealing with an India-based call center. The person I was dealing with was relatively easy to understand, pleasant and helpful. When my issue was not solved after exhausting her training and the script she was obviously following, she informed me she would have to transfer me to a more technical support person. Following a few clicks on the line, I was cleanly and efficiently transferred. My information followed with the transfer so I did not have to repeat myself. The new support person on the line sounded very American and had the skills to handle my problem quickly. Overall, this was a positive experience.

I cannot say the same thing for IVRs of late. As they came into greater and greater use in the 1990s, IVRs were helpful. In their original use, IVRs would have basic routing menus and help direct calls quickly. Even simplistic self-help features like account balance look-up or flight gate information was worth the effort for how quickly you could get the information.

However, the IVR today is often used as a call-avoidance device. Going far beyond basic call routing and simple self-help, IVRs have become endless layers of complex voice activated menus. Many of the current implementations violate basic design best practices. And it is becoming more and more rare to have a simple exit to a human operator.

One group is working to improve the IVR equation and bring more human-to-human interaction back into customer service. Gethuman is a group of volunteers working to change the face of customer service in the United States. The information on the gethuman.com Web site is free, and includes a database of major U.S. consumer company customer-service phone access information. This information includes quick and often hidden key strokes or methods to go directly to a human operator. It also contains unpublished and unlisted numbers to dial direct to a human customer service representative. The site also includes a blog and discussion groups.

So, given the choice, would you rather interact with an IVR or an offshore call center? E-mail me with your thoughts and comments.

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