Categories
Internet access Marketing

Falling Off the Phone Tree

I’ve become pretty familiar with phone trees since I started providing phone captioning services for people with hearing disabilities.

This service is provided free from the Federal government through phone service taxes. But many of its users struggle with automated answering tools businesses use to reduce the number of live customer service agents. Here in Arizona, “customer care centers” (aka call centers) used to be a thriving industry that’s rapidly being replaced by this type of phone automation.

Trim the Phone Tree

Phone trees are often programmed to encourage people to go online for their customer service needs.

This is a problem for many elderly customers who can’t, or won’t use the internet for a myriad of reasons. Their phone is their main connection to the outside world.

I’m seeing two trends in “customer care.” Neither  are good for older people who rely on phone services:

  • Long hold times interrupted with messages to visit a website
  • Complicated phone instructions requiring several inputs

Both include automated messages of varying speeds and at different volumes. This is definitely not senior-friendly.

The Phone Tree System: Internet or Else!

I’ve been amazed at the patience of people  who remain on hold for a half-hour or more to settle a problem with credit cards or bank accounts. In many cases, they have no choice because they have trouble navigating internet sites or they don’t go online at all.

Yes, such people exist and they still deserve to be served. Pushing everyone to use web-based solutions is a terrible idea. It’s frankly  rude to those can’t access the internet or simply don’t understand it. Or who, like one of my clients, refuses to “learn computers” but still runs a thriving business as offline as possible.

Some phone trees are real hornets’ nests.

Then there is voice-recognition technology that makes the situation worse. Aging can affect a once-booming voice, but I’ve heard people quite clearly speak their account numbers only to be told, or interrupted before they finish, that “I did not understand you. Please try again.”

If there’s a problem understanding a caller, send the call to a live agent on —  preferably within a minute or two.

Phone Trees Are Too Fast for Many Customers

Older people take longer to process information and phone trees tend to be very rushed. Add in the inevitable delay for people who read captions generated on their phones, who find themselves in a vicious cycle of repeat-wait-repeat-wait-disconnect.

Customer-facing businesses need to understand that there are times when live, fluent customer service agents are necessary, even for the non-elderly or not-yet elderly. There are times when I opt for a live agent simply because the company’s online customer service process is so onerous it’s easier to put the phone on speaker and do something else while I’m on hold.

I’m fairly internet savvy so if I find a website to be burdensome, I can only imagine what it’s like for someone who retired around the time the internet took off.

Sometimes an older person will ask for the automated system to repeat something and are put on hold, where they get helpful advice to “resolve the problem faster” by going online to visit:

“www.VERYLONGBUSINESSNAME.com/customercare and click on the Help Me tab at the top right-hand side of the page.”

A person who doesn’t want to go online, or can’t, may get an estimated wait time as long as 40 minutes. Seriously.

I’m glad to report that most people who wait for a live agent are gracious to them. Agents are usually (but not always) polite as well, even if they have to be told to speak more slowly.

Some Phone Trees Have Too Many Branches

Phone trees that force extensive interaction with the phone are the worst. And again, much of the problem is with instructions spoken too fast plus extremely limited time for callers to respond.

I’ve been surprised myself when I’m about to respond to a phone prompt only to hear “invalid response” because I haven’t entered the information yet. I’m still pretty spry but sometimes I have to take off my glasses to read an account or credit card number. This nanosecond of activity is apparently too long for some phone automation systems.

Now think of older people who move more slowly to put on or take off glasses or reach for a pair. They will never make the automated system happy.

Those who are waiting for a caption to come through sometimes don’t even get to finish reading the instructions before  the command “invalid input please try again” comes through. This understandably flusters them. So they either press zero for an operator to be put on a (usually) long hold, or just hang up. I’ve noticed that men hang up more often than women.

Calling the doctor? Be prepared to memorize a long list of “options”

numbered buttons
Press one if you’re calling from a physician’s office…

Physician offices have long phone trees with a lot of  “options” to remember. Here’s a typical example:

  1. “If you are a physician or calling from a physician’s office, press one.”

Do their calls go to some special Bat Phone that’s answered right away? Why do physician offices get priority anyway? Shouldn’t patients be the center of the medical universe?

2. “If you are a pharmacist, press two.”

3. “If you are calling for a prescription refill, please hang up and contact your pharmacy.”

4. “If you are calling to schedule, change, or cancel an appointment, press three.”

5. “If you need to speak to a nurse, press four.”

  • If you need to speak to Dr. Dre’s medical assistant, press 127594.
  • If you need to speak to Dr. Oz’s nurse, press 460367.
  • If you need to speak to Dr. Gupta’s PA, press, 9904523.

Actually, my sample names are too short. Many doctors seem to have really long names. To continue:

6. “If you are calling for a referral, press five.”

7. “If you are calling for a medical records release, please fax your request to 212-555-4593.”

8. “If you are calling to speak to our billing office, please hang up and dial 1-888-555-4529 and dial extension 460285.”

9. “To repeat these options, press six.”

Is this really necessary? How about offering a short menu like “Patients and their representatives press one. All other calls press two” and go from there.

Phone Trees Don’t Have to Be a Burden

I get it. Companies like automation and there probably is no going back.

Going forward, more seniors will be perfectly fine using the web to schedule doctor appointments, check their financial statements, and order take-out.

But right now, many phone trees expect too much from callers. If hiring someone to answer the phone isn’t an option, businesses that rely on this technology can make a few changes that make them easier to live with:

  • Drop the long-winded menus
  • Use the same voice throughout the menu
    • Slow down the tempo!
    • Keep an even volume
  • Don’t bother with messages to entertain or inform people on hold.
    • They can confuse callers who think they’ve been connected to a sales office.
    • When a live person does pick up, the person waiting may not realize he’s no longer on hold! This sometimes results in the call being disconnected.

It’s OK to offer an online option to take care of customer service issues, but it should never feel like waiting for a live agent is some kind of punishment. Use a creative solution like an automated callback or a voicemail message that will be returned.

Remember, seniors talk to each other about how they’re treated not only by their children, but by doctors, financial advisers (who usually have excellent phone skills), and the customer service they get from services like credit cards, banks, and cable companies or DISH.

Categories
Lifestyle Marketing

Speak Clearly, Please!

“Can you repeat that?”

I find myself asking this a lot. It seems I encounter more people who don’t, or can’t, speak clearly. Many are of a certain generation who are just as stereotyped as the Baby Boomers with whom I am supposed to identify.

(Actually, I was relieved to read that I can also claim to be part of Generation X with whom I identify more closely. I don’t feel like I have much in common with those lucky hippies who got to see The Doors and Cream and Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.)

As I ask “can you repeat that?” I realize I am stereotyping myself into the Baby Boom, who have been retiring since 2014 and who I bet has a lot more hearing loss than I since they got to see all those great acts before the era of stadium concerts.

Please Speak Clearly, Dammit!

As one who works within marketing, it bothers me that I have to ask someone who makes a sales call to me to repeat himself or herself. I can tell by speech patterns that this is almost certainly a person at least 15 years younger than I. So dudes, please slow down a bit and speak clearly.

I mean, I wouldn’t write an article or blog that doesn’t define its jargon.  I know what it’s like to not be hip or tech enough. Thank God for magazines like Wired and sites like TechCrunch and CNet. Without them, I’d feel very alienated because I grew up pre-Internet. I mean, we got cable TV relatively early and that was when I was in high school.

When I’m speaking with the general (read: younger than me) public, I find I’m asking that question to please repeat what you said more often than ever. It could be due to natural hearing loss that comes with age.

But there’s more: it’s been floated in a couple of places that technology has downgraded the necessity for clear speech. Certainly, it’s been blamed for messing with written speech—just look at the last couple of texts you sent or received. But there’s something to be said for brevity where it’s appropriate. I think more people are growing up speaking more rapidly.

Research shows people are speaking more rapidly today.

I came across a 2011 article in which Wichita State University speech expert Ray Hull explains his research that shows people increased their vocal speeds from 145 words per minute (wpm) to 160 – 180 over a decade. But most people comprehend the spoken word best when it’s down at 124 – 130 wpm or so.

Moreover, in a more recent (2016) article about slowing down speech for young children, Hull also noted that the central nervous system reaches its peak effectiveness in the early 20s. But it starts to slow down in the 40s, particularly in the area of speech processing.

No wonder so much strife has been noted between Millennials and GenXers/Baby Boomers. We/they literally can’t stand to talk to one another!

It’s Even Harder to Repeat Spoken Words

I have a part-time job with a company that provides telephone captioning services over the Internet for people with hearing loss. It’s really opened my ears to speech patterns, including speeds and accents.

Caption employee trying to understand spoken content.
What did he say?

Instead of typing out live speech, we are trained to listen and repeat using speech-to-text software. This is thought to provide more accurate translation, and so far I’d agree in general.

But it’s not easy to repeat spoken words verbatim, particularly when you are an invisible middle person and there’s no body language to observe.

I have been surprised to learn that it isn’t just fast talkers I find most challenging: it’s fast talkers with accents I don’t often encounter. I never lived further south than Northern Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. And while I heard a lot of accents over the many years I lived there, most people I associated with sounded more or less like me.

It’s said that Southerners speak more slowly. Well, that isn’t so when they are talking to one another. Try to caption a Texan relating exciting news to a fellow Lone Star resident. I find it’s easier to keep up with New Englanders on a conference call.

I was curious to see if fast talkers dominate the Mid-Atlantic States so I did some research.  A couple of years ago, The Atlantic reported on a study that ranked states by the number of fast talkers based on actual phone calls.  Somewhat surprisingly, New Yorkers were not found to be the fastest speakers. They weren’t even close: the state ranked all the way down at #38—far behind my native New Jersey, which came in at #19.

Oregon was home to the fastest talkers, followed by Minnesota—a little startling to me—and Massachusetts, which wasn’t so surprising.

I then compared this list of fast-talking states to a map that ranks states by their populations’ youthfulness to see any correlation. Oregon is a bit older than the national median age (37.9, according to the Census Bureau) at 39.2 years, not much younger than Massachusetts at 39.5. Utah has the youngest median age at 30.7. It’s also ranked #31 for fast-talking, perhaps because it has a younger population that’s still in their developing years.

I didn’t find a correlation between a state’s median age and how fast its residents speak.

Texas, though, is a youngish, 34.5 median age state. But it’s at #44 on the fast-talking list. Maine has the oldest median age in the nation at 44.5 but ranks #21 on the speech list.

So there isn’t much of a fast-talking/median age correlation.

Customer service centers with live operators can be challenging to repeat because many of their employees are young and talk quickly. Many are instructed to keep calls under a certain number of minutes in order to process more incoming calls.

Some of our customers will inform service reps that they use a captioning phone so their responses will be delayed a few seconds. That does tend to slow down some of the reps, or at least stop asking “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?” over and over.

Even more frightening are outgoing voicemail messages where the only discernable sound is that of the beep. Even voicemail greetings from doctors’ offices can be very difficult to follow because of their speed and the amount of information the caller is asked to leave: date of birth, name, the time you called, which doctor you see, and oh yeah: why are you calling?

Be Kind and Speak Clearly: The Nation is Aging

Eventually, the fast-talking Millennials will get older (I hope!) and will ask people to slow down for them.

I don’t mean to Millennial-bash. Some of the nicest people I know are of this generation. But if we’re all going to get along and do meaningful things, we need to slow down the way we communicate. Most Americans are approaching 40 or past it. With age comes a caution to understand everything that’s being said!

As Hull notes, slowing down your speech is good for everyday conversation. You’ll sound more articulate. Your speaking style will sound more natural as well. “The next time you’re talking to someone,” he told Wichita State’s NewsWise service, “remind yourself to slow down. Your listener will thank you.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories
Arizona business Marketing

Make Your Website ADA Compliant

I was surprised to read that an important part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) still hasn’t been finalized. Final rules were supposed to be issued last year about making websites ADA compliant, but have been delayed to next year.

However, this hardly means that businesses required to meet ADA requirements for physical access—schools, public buildings, and “places of public accommodation”—should remain ignorant where their websites are concerned. There are proposed rules to follow for now and it’s a safe bet that they are very close to what the final rule will look like.

Honestly, there really is no reason for their websites to not have basic accessibility tools in place by now.

A Google search will identify articles, tools, and experts to help you understand steps you can take to make your site more accessible. And guess what: people with disabilities and their families are potential customers. They buy stuff, go out to eat, and enjoy the same entertainment as the rest of us. Why lose an opportunity for more sales?

Modern Websites Can Offer ADA Compliant Tools

I recently worked a short contract for A Very Large Company that falls under ADA accessibility rules. It’s got wide, powered doors for wheelchair users, Braille elevator controls, and accessible restrooms. I spotted one blind employee. But the “AVLC” website isn’t ADA-compliant, at least as far as current guidelines suggest it should be for an organization its size.

People inside AVLC are aware and understand that the old web technology they use is a problem. Although one tool is a Microsoft product, the latest IE update impacted its functionality. Some of its functions actually work better on Chrome.

Let everyone see your website.
Don’t you want your site to be visible to all?

If Microsoft can’t be bothered to update an old tool, why continue using it?

The AVLC people I worked with expect to have new and presumably compliant web software in place in 2019. I’d bet the barn that ADA still won’t be finalized by then and they’re probably counting on it. Still, this keeps them from communicating with all their customers.

I’m a small business and do not run a place of public accommodation, so I don’t have to concern myself about ADA rules. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take a few steps to make my website a friendlier place for a person with limited vision to visit and think, hmm, I wonder if she’s available for blogging? (Yes! I am!)

I’ve added a few tools that help low-vision visitors get around my site a little easier. The most obvious one is a little toggle menu off to the left that provides larger fonts and greater contrast. It came from a free WordPress plugin I’m testing and I’ll happily make a donation to its designer if all goes well.

WordPress has a number of plugins that provide everything from testing your site to identify ADA gaps to providing general and very specific fixes. You can search the WordPress theme repository for ADA-compliant themes. (Be sure to refresh if you use this link.) WordPress’s own accessibility team posts updates, news, and recommended tools.

The ADA Changed America for the Better

The ADA, of course, literally opened American doors to persons with disabilities. And that’s a good thing.

  • Curb cuts and wider doors let people who use wheelchairs (and later, scooters) get around more easily.
  • Braille readouts on ATMs, elevators, and directories allow people with low or no vision to more fully participate in commerce.
  • Use of close-captioning tools brings more deaf people into worksites, cinemas, and theaters.

Curb cuts are helpful to parents pushing strollers and kids learning how to ride a bike. And many of us have used the larger accessible restroom stall not only for its purpose but to also to keep a little one close by and change clothes and/or diapers.

ADA also made us work more intelligently.

Think about innovations like IM, texting, and other person-to-person communications that helped office communications and cut down on chatter that makes it hard to write. They also reduced the instances of the embarrassing or annoying “reply to all” on email.

I remember reading about a deaf colleague in New Orleans who was stranded during Hurricane Katrina. She worried about using up her cell phone battery trying to contact a sister out of state via the TTY tool. Mobile communications were jammed and calls couldn’t get through—but her text used minimal power and eventually got through as she walked (yes, walked) to the airport to catch a flight out. Guess who came for dinner?

I’m not sure why websites are seen as a greater challenge when it comes to defining ADA compliance and making it happen. But’s it’s theoretically possible to make your site compliant, as attorney Angela Gibson writes in the Cincinnati Business Courier. Lawsuits against businesses with inaccessible websites have “spiked” since early 2015, Gibson says, and companies need to take precautionary measures. The tools are there, and let’s start using them.