Phoning Call Centres? Get through their menus quickly

HMRC Phone Systems one year on... a look behind the curtain

Just when you thought your telephone dealings with HMRC couldn't be more stressful, along came Voice (Speech)* Recognition; where you say what you want rather than press menu options.

Despite its reputation for being nationally loathed (80% of respondents to our Phone Menu Survey found voice prompts even more frustrating than 'push button' menus!) and often incapable of recognising differing accents, last year HMRC decided to roll out this software across the majority of their phone lines. 'Why?' we hear you ask…Good question. 

Voice Recognition - the promised dream over the rainbow?

Like many companies and organisations, HMRC have adopted VR because of the promises made and being sold the belief and the dream that at the end of the rainbow would lie a much improved customer service and all the benefits that result.  In their Intelligent Telephony Automation (ITA) report, published in August 2013 prior to the launch, HMRC claimed that amongst other things, the aim of the new software was to:

HMRC ITA Report - Provide the capability for customer self service

 - Reduce call volumes

 - Reduce customer demand for HMRC advisers

 - Result in a better user experience

Incredibly, one of the key admissions of the ITA report was that the system was not tested in a realistic HMRC environment, and so it was unknown how customers would engage with the technology when it was rolled out & fully operational.

In fact, by their own admission, they use the "Wizard of Oz" methodology (Section 2, Page 7); a person interacts with a computer system that they believe to be autonomous, but which is actually being operated by an unseen human being (the 'wizard'). In this instance, a small proportion of customers calling the HMRC contact centre thought that they were communicating with a computer using a speech interface; in reality, the participant's words were being entered into the computer by a researcher listening to the call. If only that were the case in real life!

The solution is Voice Recognition - but what's the problem?

Since I launched Please Press 1 in 2013, we've seen endless complaints every day from individuals about how hard it is to actually speak to a human at HMRC (which is all the vast majority of people want), and so we were understandably dubious as to how the new system would result in a 'better user experience'. 

In my view, the problem to be solved was a badly designed push button phone menu - see Conclusions below.

What were the findings on the Yellow Brick Road?

The users who had trialled the system voiced concerns with how well it would interpret foreign accents, that it was too fast for some users who spoke English as a second language, and one user with a speech impediment expressed that they were very unhappy using it.

By far the most common complaint was that it was hard to think of what to say!!! Additionally, a number of people reported feeling desperate to speak to someone and so tried to throw the system by pressing # buttons, saying 'agent' or staying silent. One year on, and we are seeing exactly the same type of complaints hit our inbox every single day.

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore".

HMRC CallsSo where are we now? In a dream or a nightmare?

Of course, in the interests of fairness, the only thing to do was to try it out for ourselves. At the time of launch, and again this week, my team called all of the phone lines that had changed to Voice/Speech* Recognition.

We were interested in whether there had been any significant improvements. Here is a summary of what we found:

  1. On both occasions, with all but one of the calls we made, the speech recognition could not understand what we said.
  2. Surprisingly, on the calls made last year, the most common words it did not recognise were 'Yes' and 'No'. This week, the problem seemed to have reduced, but was still present at times.
  3. To be fair, on average, it took 2-3 minutes to be put through to a queue or be asked for personal information, which reflects some significant time savings compared with some of their old phone menus, but a well designed push button menu should take no more than 1-2 minutes 
  4. Recorded information is still present on a number of lines and is played in between speaking your options and before you are actually put through to an advisor - so you are still forced to listen!
  5. Last year, on 3 occasions the VAT helpline did not recognise the word 'VAT'. In a similar test this week, the Self-Assessment line failed to understand the words 'Self-Assessment' twice.
  6. This week, on the National Insurance line, it suggested we could say 'A gap in qualifying years' for assistance. We did exactly this, and it responded 'You are calling about a letter, is that correct?' 

We also tried out the 'hacks' that some keen people recommend. We found that:

  1. Repeated pressing of the # key achieved nothing; the machine ignores it and carries on speaking regardless
  2. If you ask to be put through to a human, it will either repeat the options to you once again, or in some cases it will state that they have lots of specialist advisors to connect you to, but they need you to tell them more about your call.
  3. By and large, saying 'Agent' does not work. We tried a multitude of times, and only once did we get put straight through to a queue. When we repeated it on the same line, we had no success.
  4. In some cases, you can skip through the voice recognition system (just as you could with the button system), but only if you know what prompts to say in advance, and even then, our success was inconsistent.

Unsurprisingly, on both our original and follow up tests, we were not impressed with the system. Having to repeat ourselves on every call was incredibly frustrating, and we can't help but feel that the old push button system would have prevented this at least. Many of our users have contacted us to back this up, stating 'the voice recognition did not understand me, despite many repeats. It was very frustrating.' And 'The fancy new speech recognition menus didn't understand a word I said in my mild Scottish accent. Not even "no". Absolutely infuriating!

Behind the curtain... a handy tip 

  • If the voice system fails to understand you on a number of occasions, or indeed if you stay totally silent, instead of connecting you to an advisor you are eventually reverted back to the old automated push button system - the menus are different but we have published them here.
  • We actually found in many cases that simply ignoring all the prompts until you are asked to push buttons was a slightly quicker way of getting through.


Conclusions - "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain"

The HMRC push button phone menus topped our Phone Rage Index as the worst we had experienced. The main reason for this, and the problem they had to address were all the simple things their customers hated - too many options, too many levels, too much waffle and condescending requests advising the caller to "visit our website" etc.,etc.The worst example I quoted at launch was when it took 6 (yes SIX) minutes to press 4 buttons and get through 4 levels of phone menu - just to join the very long queue!

In my view, it would have been far simpler and cheaper to create additional dedicated phone lines, have had less phone menus and levels, cut out the waffle and just help their customers. That was the problem that needed solving.

I can't help feeling that this system has heralded even more pain for HMRC customers. Have you tried it out yet? I'd love to hear how you got on, maybe you had a good experience? Please get in touch and let me know!

Continued thanks to everyone for the great support and to the companies I've been working with, supporting Please Press 1 to help them help their customers


P.S- * I appreciate that there is a technical difference between voice and speech recognition but for simplicity, the terminology 'Voice Recognition' is used here and throughout the site.

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Jan 27th 2015

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