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Paul English’s Campaign for Live Customer Assistance and “Rosenberg’s Third Law” Revisited
[February 16, 2006]

Paul English’s Campaign for Live Customer Assistance and “Rosenberg’s Third Law” Revisited

BY ART ROSENBERG, The Unified-View
The Internet revolution for 24x7 global information access is running into a brick wall when it comes to live assistance. As the consumer population with PCs and broadband network access grows, and advertising, shopping, and customer support is increasingly diverted to multimedia web sites, the telephone is no longer the only game in town for customer assistance. That’s why I am somewhat surprised that a crusade to demand better live assistance for customer telephone callers is only now being publicized by Paul English. Designing effective self-service applications only based on telephone user interfaces has always been problematic. But the problems of waiting in queue for an agent or getting through busy phone lines, along with getting someone who can’t really help your problem, have been around ever since call centers and answering services came into being. 

What is Rosenberg’s Third Law?

A few years ago, as part of a conference presentation on IP telecommunications on the drivers for innovation in person-to-person communications, I came up with my “Third Law” for business communications, which states:

“The faster and easier it is to get information,
 the more we will still need to contact people!”
The reasoning behind this is that the people elements of “People, Process, and Technology” make decisions and do things, not information databases. People also make the data entry mistakes that cause automated business processes to generate problems that have to be fixed. It’s just not enough to get all the information you want, you still have to deal with people to get things done as a result of the information you can so easily get. So, the faster you get information, good or bad, the more you will be following up with people for action and task completion. Needless to say, this applies to internal automated business processes as well as to customer self-service applications.
With that said, let’s look at the recent headlines about increasing customer demands for more live telephone assistance vs. voice self services.

Paul English’s Campaign Against Customer Contact IVR Systems – Too Little, Too Late?

English’s article on how consumers can short-circuit the strategies of telephone self-service application designers to minimize direct access to live (and costly) call handling personnel hit the press headlines hard late last year.  Ever since, there has been a flood of comments about how consumers might take their business elsewhere if they have to spend time wading through an IVR script before they can finally click “0” for assistance.
Don’t kid yourself! Isn’t that the same kind of problem as waiting in a queue (sometimes for an hour) to talk directly to a live person?  With a well-designed self-service script, however, there is an opportunity to cost-effectively:
1.      Resolve the caller’s problem with a self-service application process,
2.      Capture useful real-time contextual information that will help to route the call more selectively to the best available live assistance, rather than just relying upon old CRM information,
3.      Buy more time in finding available live assistance during inbound traffic peaks.
But now, English has organized a campaign for consumers to report poorly designed IVR systems that get in the way of immediate access to live assistance and report them through his new Web site. The idea may be somewhat useful for feedback to the enterprise script designers, but this really old problem of cost-effective staffing to meet fluctuating traffic demands is already in the process of changing its stripes because of new IP telecommunications and wireless mobility.

Customer Service - Separating Sales From Support

Although call center technology providers always liked to pin the customer service tail on the up sell donkey, they often stretch things a bit too far by insinuating that existing customers will disappear overnight if customer care isn’t always perfect. Obviously, if the need for customer service is high and ongoing and the service is always poor, customers will eventually make a move elsewhere. However, every enterprise has to realistically balance the costs of providing reasonable service with the value of the customer to the enterprise and the risks of losing that customer. That is an exercise that must be done by business line management, not by the technology managers, nor even by contact center operations management.
But times are a-changing! Customers are now shopping more and more on the web and sales may close only after the buyer gets help from live assistance. Such buyers may or may not already be existing customers; the point is that the potential purchaser may go to another provider if customer assistance isn’t delivered immediately. Why? Because if there are other sources for products or services, “Googling” will really make it extremely easy for any sales prospect to quickly take new business elsewhere. As web-based services increase, this competitive business environment for customer activity will increase accordingly.
Online sales not only give the prospective buyer an easy means of objectively comparing products and services and their costs, but also other customer comments on their experiences with any aspect of the product or service, including problems they have found with getting customer support. So, for the online customer, answering a shopper’s question quickly will become key to making new sales.
English’s focus on voice IVR applications doesn’t cover the growing population of online customers and their needs for “click-to-chat” or “click-to-talk” live assistance. This will be true even after having the all benefits of a more efficient and flexible screen and keyboard user interface for self services, rather than the limitations of old Telephone User Interfaces (TUIs) based on touch tone keypad inputs and pre-recorded voice prompts. 
Although mature speech recognition and text-to-speech technologies make the telephone interface more flexible for self-service applications, screen-based on-line interfaces will always be more flexible and efficient for delivering informational content for such self-services. However, self-services can only go so far in answering the specific needs of an online customer and live customer assistance for both sales and customer care will always have to fill the gap.   

The Mobile Phone Customer – More Fuel on the Customer Assistance Fire

I have long been waiting for the call center industry to start talking about handling the growing population of mobile consumers, who will be using handheld devices to initiate customer service calls. Self-services are not a good solution except for really simple applications that won’t require complex dialogs with an application. Getting live assistance quickly, therefore, is key for mobile customers who will have to pay extra for the privilege of waiting in queue for live assistance. That would make a case for treating mobile customers with some degree of higher priority, no?
I was shocked to find out several years ago that there was no easy way to determine if an incoming call came from a cell phone or not, except by looking up the calling line number in a database of cell phone exchange numbers. With IP-telephony and WiFi connections coming down the pike, who knows what the mobile callers’ needs are going to be for live assistance!

IP “Overflow” for Live Assistance Staffing

Whatever works best for customer self-services is besides the point, because there will always be a need for live assistance no matter what form of communications contact the customer uses, real-time or asynchronous messaging. Real-time modalities, i.e., voice telephony and text instant messaging (IM), create the greatest load on contact center staffing during traffic peaks.
Call center strategies have always included provisions for backup resources to augment the formal call center staff. I remember in the early days of call center pioneer Delphi Communications, a programmer rigged up a simple Radio Shack rotating red light on the ceiling of the business office of the VoiceBank call center to be turned on whenever the caller waiting queue reached a pre-selected threshold. That was the signal for the clerical staff in the business office to log on as available agents to handle some of the incoming call traffic.
In the new IP telephony world, presence and availability management will be able to automatically and “intelligently” do the same kind of “overflow” call routing, regardless of where the personnel are located. Furthermore, it won’t only be for voice calls, but for real-time instant messaging as well.

The Bottom Line for Customer Assistance

What Paul English is upset about addresses old IVR design problems, is not good enough for future multi-modal IP-based customer contacts, and doesn’t take into consideration the realities of business economics and staffing. As eCommerce makes customer service a global, 24x7 proposition, live assistance staffing will always be a challenge, and never perfect. This will require both self-services and intelligent customer screening to use limited staff resources most effectively.
As customers increasingly use the Internet for self-service information and shopping, “click-to-talk” and “click-to-IM” will join the traditional voice-only telephone for real-time customer contacts. IP telephony for both desktop and mobile devices will have screens and text input capabilities to support all modalities of contact with people. Speech recognition will further enable more user flexibility and interface efficiency whenever voice input is used for self-service functions, particularly for mobile user interfaces.
As I described in the book I co-authored with Paul Anderson back in 1998, responding with voice messaging will even make email text messaging more efficient for the contact center staff. Finally, centralized IP-based call routing and presence/availability management will maximize the “virtual” customer-facing staff that can be made available to provide live assistance to any form of customer contact.   

What Do You Think?

Is Paul English right in demanding access to live assistance without any screening? Is it just poor IVR self-service design that he is complaining about? Even if he is right on both counts, what do you think about the changing role of voice telephone-only contacts? Do you think that customer information needs will often be better served with screen output rather than speech? What about giving higher priorities to mobile customers?
Let us know your opinions by sending an email to [email protected]

Discussion: Apologies to Paul English

Art Rosenberg, The Unified-View
I missed a key page on Paul English's new GetHuman web site in writing my comments about his campaign for live caller assistance, and I thank my colleague, Walt Teschner for calling my attention to it.
Here's the email exchange!

Your article suggests that you do not really understand what Paul English has said about a caller wanting to get to a human.  I would suggest that you go to  where Paul states quite clearly why it is imperative that an automated system  respect the callers' request to be connected to a human.  Paul is not anti-self-service as you suggest that he is.  Rather than distorting what Paul is doing, and putting his accomplishments down, you should recognize that he has been able to accomplish much more than both you and I have ever done in getting an awareness that bad IVR implementations really piss callers off.

Incidently, your hyping of web self-service would be appropriately balanced by you addressing some of the many things that are wrong with web self-service implementations.  My experience is that the WUI is often much worse than the telephone VUI and one of the reasons that  telephone self-service has little to worry about from the web.

Thanks for calling my attention to Paul English's objectives in qualifying a user's need for live telephone assistance. I did not see that particular web page, but he is right on enabling the users to determine when they they need live assistance.  I do appreciate what Paul English is trying to do and I absolutely agree with you that most IVR applications have been terribly designed in the past and the applications should never have been more than the most simple and well directed. Such poor design may be frustrating enough to cause users to try to get live assistance.

I did not spend too much time on English's new web site to fully understand his concerns, but I thought he might inadvertently be simply inviting blind agitation for "immediate" live assistance that might not always be practical or justified, as opposed to inviting users to report poor user interface designs. However,  future, rather than immediate, responses from qualified live assistance should be also acceptable in many situations, but,  even then, users and customers will always get  frustrated with poorly designed user interfaces.

I also think that web self services will often need as much access to live assistance as telephone applications, but "click to chat" and "click to talk" are not that widely available yet. However, web forms for requests are often exploited instead of simplistic free-form, unstructured and incomplete email messages. Clearly, more could be also done with attached automatic contextual "snapshots" of the user's problem environment, as well as exploiting presence information for matching deferred live assistance to requesters (suggested in my book with Paul Anderson 6 years ago) , etc., but I haven't really researched how well these new approaches are being pursued.

Thanks for your comments and best regards,


I responded to you late last night after going out with my wife for Valentine's Day, so I was somewhat tired. This morning, I also realized I forgot to mention to you a key strategy I always advocated for IVR applications since the early days of the technology, i.e., that caller screening and requests for assistance, especially for particular applications such as health care and emergencies, should always be more efficiently performed by a human, but that it doesn't necessarily preclude the caller from then being transferred to a self-service application that will be appropriate and cost efficient.
This approach will be even more effective in future multi-modal and transmodal online environments, where real-time "directed browsing" help can be quickly and selectively supplied by live assistance responding to "click-to-chat" or click-to-talk," without tying up agent resources for time-consuming transactions. The concept would be like the traditional PBX attendants who direct callers to particular people based upon the caller needs; today they are supplemented with auto-attendants to take care of common caller requests, but those are also frustrating if pressing "zero" during business hours gets you only  to a voice mailbox.     

But, thanks again for pointing me to English's real concern.


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