Information lossage in voice response systems

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I've spent quite a bit of time on online customer service systems this week (don't ask) and noticed a real irritation that you may have noticed to. So, you call your phone company and the first thing the automatic system does is to ask for your phone number. You key that in on DTMF keypad and get bounced through a few more phone menus. Finally, you get to speak to a person and what does that person do? Ask you for your phone number! Why? I've already given it to the computer. But noooo.... I've got to go through the whole stinking procedure again, authentication, SSN, and all.

I suppose you can make some security argument (though it's not like authenticating twice with the same information is a big challenge) but I suspect that the real problem is that the voice response system and the back-end computer systems aren't well enough integrated to transfer the context to the rep's desk. Hopefully this will change as the technology gets more advanced: it's certainly fairly easy to do with VoIP and it must be fairly expensive to burn all that customer rep time on reauthenticating you.

I know some EG readers work on telephony systems. Anyone want to comment?

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I, in fact, write software that talks to all different types of telephony hardware, including phone switches and IVRs (the automatic system that first asked for your phone number).

My guess is that, once you keyed in the information, they in fact did put it on the rep's screen. All of the major IVRs, switches, and Customer Relationship Management software (this is what pops up data on the rep's screen) can easily be set up to talk to each other and pass that information about.

It may be a question of how they worded the script that the rep follows and whether the rep followed it correctly. For a case like this one, where you won't call in often enough for the rep to get to know you personally, most call cetners I've worked with require the reps to verify the data that pops on the screen. If they word the request as just asking for the information, you may just not have realized that it was already there.

An example I had recently, I recently got transfered from one rep to another when I called my cable company's customer service line. Not only did the first rep verify my data, but so did the second one, even though they had talked over my call while I was on hold, and the second rep could easily have assumed that it had already been verified. They're not allowed to make those assumptions.

I think that this has to do with distrust of the computers within the call center management. (I've seen quite a lot of this.) It's probably inefficient, but they really do seem to fear either that the computers will systematically provide the wrong information or that even rare mistakes will potentially be catastrophic. I'm not sure which.

Of course, if you heard the rep typing in the data that you gave, it may just be an indication that their IT staff doesn't know how to set up a call center.

When I finally do reach a rep in these horrible system - I always ask the agent if they have the info - I've never had one say yes. I think the system are probably just broken most of the time.

The last system I recall using that correctly identified my phone number then used it without me providing it again, was my visa card that made you phone from your home phone to enable the card. The VISA IVR did not ask for anything but my visa number and checked my caller id matched my home phone number. I of course did not phone in from my home phone but just spoofed the caller id ( see and it all worked fine.

One of the companies I deal with regularly (Cingular, I think) is now claiming that asking you for your phone number again is a "security precaution". On the other hand, I don't have an intuitive notion about the threat model they're concerned about (unless it is you putting down the phone and someone else picking it up), so that sounds more like an after-the-fact excuse (for broken systems) than an honest reason.

I think I've finally gotten used to the problem you mentioned, but one I found annoying recently is this:

In order to activate my ATM card, I have to call a 1-800 number. The only purpose of this number is to activate ATM cards, but when you call, you get a menu, with one option "Activate your ATM card" and then you get transferred to a person who asks why you called.

When I finally do reach a rep in these horrible system - I always ask the agent if they have the info - I've never had one say yes. I think the system are probably just broken most of the time.

Yes, I think that's true, because I have the same experience. I say, "I already entered that before," and they reply, "It didn't come up on my computer."

The worst case of this I've had recently was in dealing with Geico's claims department after someone hit my parked car. When you call, they ask you to enter the claim number, which in Geico's case is something on the order of 20 digits. OK, so that's tedious enough. Then they repeat it back to you to be sure you got it right, because it's easy to punch a digit wrong when you're entering that many. And, of course, I had, and, of course, I KNEW I had, and, of course... there's no "oops" button. The system looks for the right number of digits, then repeats it S...L...O...W...L...Y, while you wait. Then you press "2" to tell them it's wrong and try again. And then... the first thing the agent wants you to do is to tell him the claim number.


I recall reading (mainstream news article or blog, I think, but the details are sketchy) that when you call in to banks and credit card companies, they ask for your account number as a way to get you into the conversation. There was a human factor problem where customers felt uneasy about a totally new person suddenly having all their information immediately available.

It certainly doesn't seem implausible to me; I've been involved (on both sides of the aisle) where the most apparently efficient course ends up taking more time. But it could also just be a story to cover up for a bad system.

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