How to Route Calls With an Automated Phone System and Avoid Voicemail Jail

Updated on May 14, 2018
Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok has more than 30 years experience developing and supporting automated phone systems. He has a Masters Degree in Computer Science.

A well-designed office phone system must be focused on customer service. It should quickly route callers to a live person at the desired customer service desk. It’s important to avoid sending callers to voicemail jail. That will only lose them as a potential customer.

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

If you ever had the experience of calling a company, reaching their automated phone system, and getting the run-around through endless menus, then you'll appreciate the importance of programming a phone system that a caller can easily maneuver through.

A phone system creates the first impression a potential customer has with a business.
A phone system creates the first impression a potential customer has with a business.

It's Important To Make Callers Feel Wanted

When a caller finds they are pressing button after button 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, or where they bank, or any other company they do business with, the failed phone system experience will strongly affect their decision. That is the major decision factor that leads me away from doing further business with certain organizations.

Being in the phone business, whenever I sell an automated system to a client, I instruct them to consider their 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.

The Welcome Greeting Should Be Short and Simple

Of course the initial welcome greeting should mention the company's name so the caller knows they dialed correctly. But special attention needs to be put to setting up a good menu of options.

A well-designed automated attendant menu guides the caller properly. It should be simple to understand, not overwhelming, not ambiguous, and not confusing.

Test the Phone System Menu to Confirm It's Accuracy

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

As a systems analyst I personally don't consider the programming of a phone system completed until it has been thoroughly tested.

Unfortunately many companies never do that part of the work. They just install the system and expect it to take care of things without proper customization and testing.

Once a new phone system is installed, someone should check how well callers are treated. They need to call in as a customer to find out what the customer goes through.

If they would do that, they might discover how stupid their phone system is set up, and they would be motivated to correct it.

Keep It Simple

A simple easy-to-understand menu of options is all that's required. Good planning will help to achieve this. Think about what callers usually call about and include menu options to address those needs. That's all it takes to make a phone system work well.

Planning an automated phone menu is really a simple task. However, some managers want to make it so complicated that callers get frustrated. I always tell my clients to test the system after they have completed the installation. It will enlighten them to any issues that may be the result of poor planning.

I have run into many company managers who don't care to understand the necessity of a well-designed 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 would, to find out how a caller is treated. This is such as easy thing to do, and it should be repeated occasionally to be sure things are always functioning smoothly.

Always Allow Pressing Zero for a Live Operator

Besides an easy-to-follow menu, one thing that should be considered a standard among all phone systems is the menu option zero that leads direct to a live person.

Some callers may not be in the right frame of mind to listen to a long list of recorded options. This needs to be considered.

When I call a company and I'm feeling rushed, I press zero and I expect to be connected to a receptionist or live attendant who can help 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 going in circles, sometimes never getting anywhere. If I have a choice of where I give my business I end up never contacting that company again. They just lost a customer.

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 just a shame that some companies play these games.

Show Your Customers You Care About Them

Some companies, especially utilities and banks, are very bad with their customer service, and this is obvious when a caller has trouble getting through the phone system to a live person.

I have tried to report my findings to the programming department of various companies. In most cases my reports fall on deaf ears since I find the same problems months later. I wonder how many customers they lose over that time period.

I have found that utilities and government agencies are the most likely to have unfriendly auto attendant menus that waste the caller's time on the phone. It's a shame that they don't need to care since customers usually don't have other options.

They don't seem to care, but more likely, they don't have good managers responsible enough to oversee what their programmers have done when setting up the phone system. This is why the system ends up being 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 want.

If you run into a phone system that does not do that for you, it's the manager’s fault. They are in charge of planning the design of the menu of phone options provided to the caller. They are responsible for overseeing the system programmers.

Conclusion

Do the companies with unfriendly phone systems 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 menu is too complex, they are designing it totally wrong. This will reflect on how the callers feel about doing business with the firm.

There's no reason why a phone system can't be made simple. 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. Then test each option to be sure it is working as expected. And always include a quick way out by pressing zero.

Those companies that put some effort into designing a simple-to-use phone system will have satisfied customers who recognize that the focus is on customer service.

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Glenn Stok

    Comments

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      • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

        Glenn Stok 

        4 years ago from Long Island, NY

        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.

        Suggestions:

        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.

      • profile image

        Batee Lanka 

        4 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 imageAUTHOR

        Glenn Stok 

        6 years ago from Long Island, NY

        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.

      • JamaGenee profile image

        Joanna McKenna 

        6 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 imageAUTHOR

        Glenn Stok 

        6 years ago from Long Island, NY

        Pamela, Absolutely correct. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Pamela N Red profile image

        Pamela N Red 

        6 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.

      • WannaB Writer profile image

        Barbara Radisavljevic 

        7 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.

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