Avoid Sending Business Callers to Voicemail Jail

Voicemail Jail should not be an option!

The way that a caller is treated by a phone system can make or break a business relationship.

I am sure you had the experience of calling a company, reaching their automated phone system, and getting the run-around through endless menus while trying to the get to the right person.

I am in the phone system business and have developed various configurations of systems. But I am disturbed by the ridiculous programming I find others have with their phone systems.

A well designed phone system should quickly and accurately route a caller to their desired destination.

First impressions count and can destroy business, especially when a potential customer calls a business and is treated poorly by the phone system.
First impressions count and can destroy business, especially when a potential customer calls a business and is treated poorly by the phone system.

Many Companies Don't Care

Many companies, especially utilities and banks, are very bad with customer service through their phone system. They never ever had anyone call in to their own service to find out what a caller goes through and how stupid their phone system is set up.

As a systems analyst I personally don't consider the programming of phone systems completed until it has been thoroughly tested. But unfortunately many companies never do that part of the work. They just put the system on line and expect it to take care of things.

I have tried to report my findings to the programming department of various companies. But I think my reports fall on deaf ears since I find the same problems months later.

It's Important To Make Callers Feel Wanted

When one finds they are pressing key after key and not getting anywhere to reach a live person, or to get the information they want, they will feel that they are dealing with a company that does not care to have his or her business.

When a customer is considering switching insurance companies, where they bank, or changing any other company they do business with, the phone system experience will strongly affect their decision.

I'm in the phone business. Whenever I sell an automated system I instruct my client to consider his or her attitude towards their customers. I explain that the phone system must do three things.

  1. It must make their customers feel welcome.
  2. It must make it easy for callers to quickly get what they want.
  3. It must always have an option to go direct to a live person by pressing zero.

What To Say On An Auto Attendant Welcome Greeting

You must make their customers feel welcome.

I'm not just talking about a nice welcome greeting at the beginning, although that’s important so the caller knows they dialed correctly.

The welcome message also needs to include a menu of options to guide the caller properly. It should be simple to understand. Not overwhelming, not ambiguous, and not confusing.

Much too often I have called large corporations and heard a confusing list of options that literally contradict with one another.

Unfortunately, I have found government agencies are most responsible for stupid auto attendant menus such as that. They don't seem to care or they don't have managers responsible enough to oversee what their programmers have done when setting up the phone system. This is why the system ends up being unfriendly and time consuming for the caller.

It doesn't have to be that way. These systems were designed to speed the caller through and quickly give them what they wanted. If you run into a phone system that does not do that for you, it's the manager’s fault, the one in charge of planning the layout of the option menu provided to the caller and overseeing the programmers.

Callers Should Quickly Get Through to Where They Want

I have run into many company managers who don't care to understand the necessity of a well-organized system.

They just tell an employee to install the phone system and they never follow up to check on the outcome. They never test it by calling in as a customer to find out how a caller is treated.

I always tell my clients to test the system after they have completed the installation. It’s simple to do and it will enlighten them if there are any issues that may have been introduced by poor planning.

Planning an option menu is really a simple task. But some managers want to make it so complicated that callers get frustrated.

A simple easy to understand menu of options is all that's required. Good planning is all that is required to achieve this. Think about what callers usually call about and include menu options to cover those needs. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Allow Quick Access to a Live Person by Pressing Zero

Not all callers know what will lead to an answer. Some may even be frustrated for any unknown reason and not be in the right frame of mind to listen to and respond to a list of recorded options.

When I call a company and I'm feeling rushed, I press zero and I expect to be connected to a receptionist or operator who can apply human intelligence to properly route my call to the right department or person.

Of course I don't always get through this way and I end up running in circles. Sometimes never getting anywhere.

Some automated phone systems will route the caller to a live operator after pressing zero a number of times. I don't condone this method. It's a shame that some companies play these games.

Do these companies even know what they are doing? They are driving away business. It's not the phone system destroying their business. It's the way they programmed the system. Blame it on the programmer. More importantly, blame it on the manager who didn't properly guide the programmer with what they really want the system to do.

If one finds their phone system complex, they are designing it totally wrong. And this will reflect on how the callers are being treated.

Keep It Simple

There's no reason why a phone system can't be simple. Most systems on the market today are intelligent devices that can handle the overload of calls.

All the owner of a company has to do is program a simple menu of options to cover the most important tasks that a caller needs to accomplish. And then test each option it to be sure it is working as expected.

How many companies do that? Those that do put some effort into designing a simple-to-use phone system will have happy customers who are treated well when they call to do business.

© 2011 Glenn Stok

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Comments 9 comments

WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA

The final insult is that after you finally get through to a live person to discuss your problem, no matter what an ordeal it's been, the final line from the customer service person is always, "Thank you for 'choosing' AT&T." As if there was a choice for DSL service where I live.

Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 5 years ago from Oklahoma

Sometimes the list of options don't cover what my needs are and I just hit "O". Usually you will get an operator unless, like you say, they don't care to help their customer.

Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 5 years ago from Long Island, NY Author

Pamela, Absolutely correct. Thanks for stopping by.

Charlie Wolf profile image

Charlie Wolf 5 years ago from Pacific Northwest

Excellent subject. I think you have just related to every consumer in the country. Sadly, I don't anticipate any improvements for some time.

Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 5 years ago from Long Island, NY Author

Charlie, I don't see much change coming too soon either. Many companies never test their own phone system to see how bad it is. Thank for reading and for your comments.

JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Glenn, not to brag but I'm of above average intelligence and when I can't decide which number to push from the choices offered, I shudder to think how confusing they must be to those with a lower IQ.

Part of the problem, I think, is the choices are worded in Corporate Speak. They may make perfect sense to the person who wrote the "script" because that's what he/she hears in an average work day. But it may as well be a foreign language to a customer. Instead of having a company employee test the system, I'd be grabbing a few "average Joes (or Janes)" off the street and then listening to *their* suggestions for flaws and improvements.

You're so right that government agencies seem to have the most confusing automated menus. After I was laid off in 2004, I spent 2 days trying to get through to a real person at the unemployment agency. Each round of jumping through the hoops of the auto menu took a minimum of 10 minutes, only to be told (and I quote) "There are too many callers ahead of you. Goodbye." and the call would terminate! It's not rocket science to figure out WHY the cue was always full - the natural inclination after being cut off like that would be to re-dial the number immediately. The afternoon of the second day, I called the main number for the State Dept of Labor and (luckily?) was connected to a person who heeded my suggestion to try the unemp agency's number herself. She was flabbergasted that she couldn't get through either, and THAT system WAS streamlined and simplified within days! She also gave me a direct number to a real person, who was shocked that one of her bosses would actually give out the number to her "private" line. Hello. I'm a taxpayer. I paid for that "private" line.

As for utility companies, at least one power company (in Kansas) uses a system where if a customer will have to wait more than five minutes, they're given the option to leave a call back number and hang up. The recording tells you to expect a call back within x number of minutes, and a real person actually DOES call back within the allotted time. Amazing!

The system that irritates me the most, though, is the one using a computed-generated voice pretending to be a real person. I might be in a great mood when I dial the 800 number, but I'll be fuming by the time the automated part ends after "Just a moment while I look up your account" and "I'm sorry, I didn't understand what you said. Could you repeat it?". The kicker is before "he" can connect me to a REAL person, "he" wants a rating of "his" performance from 1-5, and when I hit 1, "he" POUTS. Come on! A computer-generated voice with FEELINGS? Really?

Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 5 years ago from Long Island, NY Author

Jama, Thanks for your comments. That adds a lot of useful information here. You have a great point about using an "average Joe" to test the phone script. I agree that's really the only way to improve it. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

Batee Lanka 2 years ago

Hello, I was wondering why most of the customers select the last option of the call menu even it is not the required option for them to query. For example, I am operating an answering system to redirect customers to 4 departments of the company. But mostly last option will be the selection for most or the customers even though it is not the relevant department. I assume that customers are lazy to listen to the menu and they just remember the last option and enter that option to speak to an agent. I would appreciate if you could comment on this. Thanks.

Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY Author

Batee Lanka -

I would have to hear your greeting just to be sure what the problem is. But I would guess it has something to do with the wording or the length.


1. Keep it short.

2. Get to the point with the options for the caller, don't have a lengthy intro.

3. Give the most important and useful option first.

If that doesn't help, call your own phone and listen to it with an open mind as if you were a caller. See if it is misleading in any way, or if there is too much information for a new caller to handle.

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