How not to communicate: “your call is in a queue and will be answered as soon as possible”

I had the misfortune of having a problem that really needed to be fixed yesterday – the earlier the better.  So I found myself on the phone and after selecting the right IVR options I was told “Your call is in a queue and will be answered as soon as possible” and this recording kept being replayed every 10 – 20 seconds.  The first time I hung up after six minutes – partly because I just could not stand to listen to the recording.  The next time I rang I was listening to this recording for four minutes.  What do I find so irritating about this recording?

Being British I queue – I have been doing it for many years and it is second nature to me.  In the real world when I queue I make that choice.  My choice is based on observation and calculation:  I observe the length of the queue; I observe how quickly / slowly the queue is moving; and I calculate how long it is likely to take me to get served.  Based on that calculation I make a decision: to queue or not.

I found the recording irritating because it did not provide me with any useful information.  Information that I needed to make a decision – hold whilst making a cup of tea or hang up?

Specifically:

  • It did not tell me where I was in the queue e.g. “Your are 10th in line to be served”;
  • It did not tell me how long I would have to wait to get served e.g. “We estimate that we will answer your call in 5 minutes”;
  • It did not suggest when it would be better time for me to call – a time when there is less demand on the call centre;
  • It did provide context and/or seek to elicit my sympathy e.g. “Because of the bad weather, some of our staff have not been able to make it to work today.  That unfortunately means that it will take longer for us to answer your call. Please be patient as we are doing our best;
  • It did not provide me with a sense of progress e.g. ” You were 10th in the queue, you are now 2nd in the queue”.

Why is it so hard for people who are in the business of serving customers to act on insights that have been around for over 50 years?  Insights that show the human need for control – to be in control of his/her life.  Insights that show that one of the best ways to inflict considerable pain on a human is to put him/her in an environment over which he/she has no control.  Martin Seligman (psychologist) even coined a term for it “learned helplessness”.

It is hard because the people who authorised the recording are not thinking of customers as human beings.  They are used to operating a factory: a factory that processes calls.  To the managers of these factories what matters is to deal with the calls in way that minimises costs.  In a factory there is conveyor belt and your call is on the conveyor belt.  And they want to let you know that they will process your call as soon as possible.  The focus is on them and their internal operation not you the human being and your needs.  That does not make these managers bad human beings – they are simply trapped in a factory mindset where you process objects.

Here is what I would have preferred to hear “Dear customer, thank you for calling us today.  We would love to serve you straight away as none of us likes to wait especially when we have a pressing problem that needs to be fixed.  Right now we cannot do that because only 60% of our people have been able to make it to the office today due to the bad weather.  Please bear with us and we will get around to you as soon as we can.  Your are 20th in the queue and we expect to serve you in about ten minutes.  Please bear with us.  Or if that is not possible then call us back later in the day.”

A final thought:  this incident shows the importance of paying attention to the basics before embarking on the ‘strategic’ stuff.   For a customer there is nothing more ‘strategic’ – important / critical – than the way you treat her when she reaches out to you for help.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

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