‘Talking’ to a Computerised Help Desk: Technology Looking for a Purpose

I was on the phone this morning to my ISP trying to find out why the cable modem wasn’t responding (turned out there was a major outage).

I was able to reflect, once again, how much I hate speech recognition Interactive Voice Response compared to button pushing.


Standard ‘button pushing’ IVR

Voice recognition IVR

Welcome to…Welcome to… I can help you…
It’s a computer. It’s not that smart. Let’s not try to pretend it is.
Press 1 for technical assistance, …
A quick button press. Can already be pressing the button while further options are being read out.
Would you like ‘technical assistance’, …
Forced to parrot back the required phrase. Have to wait until all options have been read out.
n/a — a button press can’t be mistakenI’m sorry, I didn’t understand that. Please state if you would like ‘technical assistance’, …
Again, wait until all the options have been read out. Took three goes for the system to recognise this simple phrase.


  • Slower having to wait for all the options to be announced, slower to speak than hit a button, slower for the computer to inteprept speech than a button press.
  • Significantly more prone to input being un-interpretable
  • I don’t like having to parrot back phrases
  • It feels like an unnatural interaction. You push buttons on machines and talk to humans.
  • Can’t use automatic dialling to go through options
  • Can’t use while SO is still asleep!
Advantages? None!


Customer Service: Shoe Clinic vs. Radfords

Another example of great vs. shocking customer service:

Today my partner bought a new pair of walking shoes from the Shoe Clinic (Willis Street, Wellington, New Zealand).

The sales person was obviously knowledgeable, and spent an hour measuring her foot, finding the right pair of shoes, and even cutting insoles to match her orthotics.

All just part of the service.

On the contrary, we have Radfords (also Wellington based). This has been a long drawn out saga, but basically they mis-measured some curtains we asked to have installed (I mean obviously mis-measured: when they came to install them they extended halfway over a bookshelf!)

We’ve received the absolute worst customer service from them: they wouldn’t return messages, tried to pass-the-buck, and even ignored a letter to the manager—while still sending us bills.

My partner finally got hold of the CEO after they sent another bill. For the first 5 minutes he tried to fob her off, first suggesting we’d changed our minds about the width; then saying the person who installed the curtains was a contractor, and we’d have to take it up with him (not the case under NZ law). After much arguing he finally relented, and took $200 off the $600 bill—only a small amount more than the extra material they’d mistakenly cut and billed us for.

Guess where we will and won’t be shopping in the future.

Here’s some interesting statistics from a Unisys Best Practice Study Tour (1999):

• Only 1% of customers who complain are systematically trying to cheat an organisation.
• Only 1 in 10 dissatisfied customer actually complains to the organisation.
• Dissatisfied customers tell twice as many of their friends, family and associates about a bad service experience when compared with satisfied customers.
• A complaint well handled can increase brand loyalty by 5–10%.