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

Marketing to Seniors By Phone? Keep It Clear and Concise.

I work a part-time job where I have the opportunity to listen in on customer services and marketing to seniors delivered via phone.

For the most part, I’m not impressed. Aside from the obvious frauds (and I’m glad to report that many seniors smell a rat pretty quickly), far too many businesses are missing an opportunity to attract a group that has money and are probably more polite and patient than other age groups.

Seniors Have More Money to Spend Than Ever Before

Today’s seniors have more money today than they did a few years ago. According to a 2017 Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, households headed by someone age 75 or older saw their net worth increase by 60%—more than other age groups.

I won’t get into the specifics but you can read an excellent summary on “the graying of wealth” from Forbes contributor Neil Howe.

One item that stuck out to me is that wealth is also much more evenly distributed among this generation. Marketing to seniors as a group is in itself a pretty good lead. Plus, they like to shop, if not for themselves then for grandchildren and other young people in their lives. And according to the American Marketing Association, research from AARP shows they’re brand-loyal as well. One sale can lead to more.

Marketing to Seniors? Slow Down the Fast Talk and Speak Plainly.

I noted in an earlier piece that people who make a living doing sales over the phone need to slow the hell down with their speech! At some point, only they will be able to understand each other.

It’s funny because these calls often begin at a nice pace. “Hello may I speak with Mr./Mrs. Smith?” Once they connect with the right person, these telesalespeople seem to go into speech overdrive: “IhavesomeexcitingnewstosharewithyouaboutournewskincareproductdevelopedjustforTheGreatestGeneration!”

Honestly I don’t understand many of these callers and I have several years in front of me before I collect Social Security or wave placards warning the government to keep its hands off Medicare.

Seniors love to take notes from phone conversations.

Marketing and salespeople who slow their speech to an accessible level will get some interest even from normally skeptical seniors. I admit they probably won’t make a sale right away because seniors love to take notes so they can “look this up” later, probably to make sure they aren’t being sold a scam. And if a senior isn’t interested, he or she will politely inform you before hanging up.

I have a friend, a guy in his late 50s, who sells e-commerce services via phone. He’s lucky in that he doesn’t make cold calls and only calls people who ask to be contacted so he’s already dealing with interested parties. But he has many elderly customers who not only renew the service year after year but specifically ask to speak only with him.

The reason? He’s got a great phone manner. He’s friendly, knows the product extremely well, and speaks clearly. He’s also very patient and doesn’t allow himself to get annoyed by repeated questions.

He’s created a great recipe for successful marketing to seniors.

He works on commission so it’s in his interest make quick sales. But he understands that not all selling can be done at a rapid pace. So he paces himself for those that take more time, even scheduling a time to speak with older clients when he knows the office will be quiet.

Live and Automated Customer Service Need Consistent Speed and Volume

One thing that amazes me is how people who make a living on the phone as customer service or IT reps seem to talk without breathing. How do they do that? 

Anyway, remembering to breathe will slow down your speech. Which is good for you: lack of oxygen will eventually make you faint. And it will make you a better customer service rep because I’ll bet you get a lot of calls from seniors. Keep a steady speaking pace, and don’t worry about long pauses: most seniors listening to you on the phone are writing everything down.

This is critical when it comes to people who work in financial services. Don’t rattle off numbers one after another. Say them slowly and be clear about which account you’re reporting.

In addition to live agents, there’s a lot of automated information seniors obtain via phone. Many times, these recordings are inconsistent with volume and speed. This is a terrible way to treat customers. Automation has already taken away jobs but why turn away real and potential customers? Talking fast to cram in a lot of “options” isn’t working. Seniors will just hang up.

The worst offenders seem to be physician offices, where voicemail is often set up by women with soft, higher pitched voices. Their voices are fine one-on-one in an exam room but not for an older person, likely with hearing aids, who’s trying to understand a long outgoing message. So they might hang up, but that means they will call again, tying up the lines. Or they may press any button to get to someone live.

And what’s with the volume variance in customer service call centers? There’s no good reason to screech up the volume to inform callers that you may be recording the conversation for “training and customer service purposes.”

And finally, does your service ask callers to participate in brief customer service surveys?  Well guess what? Seniors do participate. Amazingly, they give middling scores to some pretty awful practices. Be nice, be clear, slow it down, and you’ll get higher marks.

Providing Tech Support? Give Seniors Clear Definitions.

Marketing to seniors includes answering their computer-related questions.
Seniors are online for email, shopping, and researching everything marketers tell them.

Tech support people have long dealt with clueless customers. I remember hearing back in the day about how the “cupholder” on a new computer broke or worrying about giving the computer the flu virus.

People have caught up quite a bit. Still, tech support staff should be cognizant that many seniors don’t understand a lot of their language.

People often confuse browsers with search engines. It’s so rote, they don’t think about it.

Ask many non-tech people (not just seniors) what browser they use, and they’ll probably answer “Google.” This does not mean Chrome. This means they get to your company’s website through Google. Many people really don’t know the difference between a browser and a search engine. Or they forget: these functions are so rote, so automatic, that they don’t really mean much to the non-techies among us.

It also doesn’t help, as one tech support guy said, that Google and Microsoft use a similar color scheme.

So before you ask what browser someone uses, ask if they use IE, Firefox, Chrome, whatever. Some might even be using Safari.

Finally, understand that seniors want to use computers. They really do like them and they absolutely love email, Facebook, and online shopping. And while they don’t freak out like their younger friends do when the Internet isn’t working (they do things like read and chat on the phone), they deserve high levels of service. Because the services and products they’re buying might be from you!

 

 

Categories
Marketing Mobile technology

The Return of Spam Calls

Have you been getting more spam calls lately?

Of course you are. Everyone is in spite of the Do Not Call (DNC) Registry. So what’s going on?

DNC Can’t Keep Up With Phone Technology

Actually, the DNC list worked pretty well back in the day. It came from early anti-spam legislation and was set up in 2003 to target telemarketers with bad phone manners. If they were legitimate players, they could be fined so they had an incentive to obey the law. (Spammers are notorious for making quick exits from the public eye.)

Back then, the Internet was still young and innocent. You couldn’t abuse it to place a ton of spam calls all at once.

Crooks, of course, could care less and frequently changed their phone numbers to stay ahead of DNC blocks. Later, prepaid, disposable mobile phones made this even easier.

And then VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) tech was introduced as a call center management tool. VoIP services are excellent for legitimate use and provide valuable marketing data. But like any business tool, it can also be used by a single crook to place a lot of hard-to-trace and harder-to-stop calls from ever-changing phone numbers.

Some Spam Comes From Outside the US

I bet you’re shocked to read this. Like spam email, lots of spam calls come from outside the US where DNC isn’t the law and can’t be enforced.

“Is that you, Vladamir? I told you to stop calling me!”

It isn’t just Russia that’s doing all this phone spam. India is a big actor, too. Since it’s a friendly nation, it goes after phone spammers. Earlier this year, Indian police tracked and shut down a call center in Mumbai behind one of the “this is the IRS” scams. 

Of course, there are plenty of US-based spammers. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, an arm of the Treasury Department, busted such a group working out of Miami at around the same time. (Like they say, if it’s from Florida….)

Woman on phone asking a ridiculous question to a spammer.
Another response to phone spam: “Will the IRS accept my Fry’s gas points?”

The more you read about phone spam, the weirder it gets and the more you wonder about people who fall for these schemes. I can understand an elderly person getting alarmed by the “your grandchild is in danger — send money!” scam.

But a scammer who demands payment in iTunes cards, as Forbes’ Kelly Phillips Erb reports, should definitely be a red flag. 

Block that Spam!

Many people just won’t answer a call from a number they don’t recognize. Merging your phone with your Outlook or Gmail contacts will let you know who’s calling before you pick up.

If a call is important, they’ll leave a voicemail, right? Right, but you might have to listen to a lot of them (although not all spammers leave them) and the number doesn’t get reported. 

Or you can take the route of my friend Nicole, who listed a table and chairs to sell on Craig’s list earlier this year.

Almost immediately, a spammer texted her with a long spiel about being out of town, but really wants her stuff. He would pay her through PayPal, a friend will pick up the table, etc.

Nicole responded by text-spamming him back several times with messages that ranged from changing the number of available chairs to requesting a picture and asking if the person was married. Eventually, the spammer blocked her calls, which while ironic, is an excellent way to reduce spam calls and texts.

I use Truecaller, which relies on people reporting spam and then shares the information with its network. So I can see whether a number has been reported as spam, and even how many people reported it.

You can also reassure Truecaller when a caller is legit by suggesting a name. But some people do want their names kept private, so be careful when you do this.

Reporting spam to the service app of your choice and to the DNC —even if they’re from other countries—can help us beat the spammers at their own game.

New Spam Calling Tricks

The latest trick I’ve seen on my phone are spammers who use the local area code, thinking I’m more likely to accept a local call. They’re right, but I’ve caught on.

Then, there are robocalls that try to sound like a real person. It’s usually a woman asking if you can hear her and once you reply, the rest of the tape starts rolling. Be very careful about this: your response is recorded and used for illicit means. It’s amazing what doors open with “yes” or even “yeah.”

Some robo-spam can even answer the question “are you a real person?” Clever, huh?

Text spam is particularly annoying and alarming. Don’t click on any links from a number you don’t recognize. You don’t know where they will take you.

Legitimate Businesses Must Avoid Looking Spammy

The sad thing is, spammers are harming legitimate marketing outreach. Law-abiding companies that do outreach like this need to be extra careful.

I recently tried HomeSmart to get some quotes for a new air condition unit “to be purchased at a later date.” I immediately got about three calls, and a couple more the next day.

A mere 12 hours after I placed the request, HomeSmart called me to ask if I’ve received information and would I like to turn off the reques

I received calls a day later and many were identified as spammers. HomeSmart has a pretty good reputation about vetting the vendors it recommends, so I’m sure these people were OK. But this is another twist to phone marketing that makes email marketing look even better.