The good and bad of automated telephone answering systems

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From a telephone number provider’s perspective, automated answering systems are part and parcel of our service. Delivering greetings or information, directing calls, keeping people on hold – it’s something businesses want.

But is the increase of automated processes positive for everyone?

We recently contributed to a feature on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme exploring this topic; so here are some of our thoughts on how the positives weigh up against the negatives and considers how far automation will go.


The benefits for businesses

Automating services is a key way for a business to operate more efficiently, manage their resources, in particular staff, more effectively and serve their customers better.

As Tom Bateman from the BBC reported in the feature on the Today programme:

There are now 31,000 self service checkouts in Britain, more than in all the other countries in Europe put together. They don’t replace staff, but liberate them to help customers – claim the supermarkets – and their number will double by 2018.

Increasing efficiency

Let’s take a telephone service like Information Line as an example. This service enables a business to record a message that will automatically play to every caller that calls a specific telephone number. The same message, the same information, to as many callers that happen to call that number at any given time.

It’s a perfect example of how an automated answering service can efficiently deliver a consistent message to a large number of callers.

  • Automated answering means more calls get answered
  • Deliver the same message every time

Better use of resources

Using the Information Line service again as an example, the business can use its staff more effectively by automating the message service. Professor Noel Sharkey from the University of Sheffield, a fellow contributor to the Today programme, said; “Automation…has allowed more people to move out of routine work.

I imagine the staff wouldn’t want to repeat the same statement over and over and over again to every caller that comes through to them. They can be better placed to serve callers that need more specialised help.

  • Free up staff to answer calls that need their expertise
  • Staff will be more creative when answering their calls and will feel less like robots

Improving customer experience

Directing customers for specialised help is where a service like Virtual Receptionist (or IVR, or Auto Attendant) can be really effective. Callers can go straight through to the right team or person that will be best qualified to deal with their enquiry by selecting the option, from those automatically presented to every caller, that best describes their situation.

Automation is intended to make customers experience with a company better. It’s based on a business working out what their common questions or enquiries are and providing that information quickly or directing the customer to the right place to get the response they need.

  • Help customers get their answer more quickly
  • Avoid customers being passed from pillar to post just to get some help
  • Get your best staff in the right places to make the most of the right calls

Non-human interaction

So, we, the callers, should be grateful that the business has taken the time to put some thought and most likely some money into how best to serve us and make our lives easier when contacting them. But there can be negativity toward going through this sort of automated answering systems – why?

Generic messaging – people are unique

Automation is about rules. It depends on us fitting into specific scenarios. That doesn’t make us feel very special. The idea of being lumped together to get a standard response doesn’t meet with our ideals that we’re all unique – unique experiences are what we want.

Creating distance between the company and the caller

By not being able to interact directly with a representative of a company, it would seem that the business is keeping us at arms length. I think this links back to our need to feel that we’re being dealt with uniquely. What if we have more questions? What if we don’t recognise that the standard response actually relates to us? Human interaction would adapt to help me understand, automation won’t.

The future

There have been plenty of films that revolve around the rise of robots and the impact on society – two of my favourites being the Terminator series and ‘I,Robot’ – so will we see fiction become reality?

Another contributor to the Today programme feature was Professor Bartlett from the University of California. She creates systems that recognise facial expression which apparently are often better than people at accurately detecting how a subject is feeling – so maybe fiction is already becoming reality!

But where do I see the future of automation?

Human interaction’s needed

Personally I don’t think we’ll ever lose the desire to interact with another human being. I think this will always be the case, particularly when it comes to dealing with something we’re spending, or have spent money on.

Better design

Even with the increasing availability of the internet and the instant interaction that can take place through that, there is something special about being dealt with personally and talking with someone who is as unique as us.

But it’s probably the case that the negativity towards automated systems is often down to bad design. It’s not that they can’t help me and answer my queries, it’s just that they don’t do it in a way that’s intuitive.

I think automation will continue to make aspects of our lives easier, but this should mean that it will leave businesses to really devote their staff to things that can’t be automated, that have to have human interaction and need that personal touch.

If you’re looking at automated telephone answering systems

If you’re thinking about whether you can benefit from using an automated telephone answering system, get in touch. We have thousands of businesses using all sorts of call management tools with us to benefit them and their customers.

It doesn’t have to be complicated, it’s normally better that it’s not, but we’d be more than happy to talk through:

  • what services you could use;
  • how you can add them to your telephone numbers with us;
  • best practices when designing an IVR (Virtual Receptionist, Time Based Forwarding, Call Queuing etc).

All you need to do is give us a call (or send us an email, contact us on LiveChat – whatever’s your preference).

Here’s a link if you want to hear the full feature from BBC Radio 4′s Today programme.