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Question:

Why do people hate call centers? What is it about call centers that make them a user experience nightmare?

Call centers are clearly an effective means of doing business, otherwise they wouldn't exist (capitalism 101). They make money, the agents are generally nice and the customer gets what they want relatively quickly.

Hypothesis:

People are visual; we have a hard time keeping up with and remembering auditory cues and information. The lack of visual progression in a call leads to user frustration.

Additionally, according to this article, call centers are constantly hiring, firing and suffering from employee turnover. Does a lack of agent experience, and an inability for an agent to think creatively and "bend the rules", lead to inefficiency when on a call?

I have no direct experience with call centers but I develop software that integrates with them, so this is essentially market research for me.

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    Where's the user experience question? It is very opinionated. – John Riselvato Mar 14 '14 at 18:36
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    It constitutes as UX because the user is the receiver of the Call from the call center. – Pdxd Mar 14 '14 at 18:42
  • @Pdxd correct, when a caller calls a call center, that, in my mind constitutes a user-product engagement – OneChillDude Mar 14 '14 at 19:03
  • You forgot the support scripts. - "Sir, reboot your computer." - "It's not the computer" - "Sir, please reboot your computer. I am a professional. " - "Transfer me to someone with a penguin on their desk please" – Kaz Wolfe Mar 15 '14 at 5:11
  • Why did I receive a down vote, I feel like there is a valid question here? I would love some pointers on how I can make this clearer and more objective – OneChillDude Mar 17 '14 at 3:30
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Firstly, I will disagree with the blanket assertion that call centers always suck. Some of them (e.g. T-Mobile US) are quite pleasant to deal with imho.

Its perceived as a cost center and needs to balance customer satisfaction with expenditure, also its very hard to show customer retention/acquisition as being caused by call centers (vs direct metrics from ad campaigns etc.) As such, very commonly they will have these problems:

  1. Outsourced centers go to lowest bidder: Yes, the idea behind moving operations to a cheaper country is to save money, but many organizations get greedy and want to save as much as possible while hiring completely unskilled labor without good checks.
  2. Machines are far cheaper than labor: This leads to frustrating IVRs that make people jump in hoops when they really need a human to solve their problems. Unfortunately, making it too easy to bypass the IVR just means impatient people won't use available options and will therefore tie up CS, resulting in longer wait times and/or additional costs to hire more people.

As a user, the above factors lead to frustrating experiences such as:

  1. CSR with heavily accented pronunciation/unable to comprehend or communicate effectively: Occurred far more frequently few years back when outsourcing call centers was a hot trend, nowadays most companies have minimum standards to avoid such frustrations.
  2. L1 CSRs with little power to make meaningful changes, and need to escalate for even trivial account updates (possibly to L2 that has limited working hours). Another artefact of lack of QC for CCs, this just results in the company having to pay for plenty of L2s to do the job anyway.
  3. IVRs with a deep hierarchical menu of options, that must be traversed before you can ask for a human CSR. Common in service oriented companies offering multitude of products (integrated cable, phone, internet corps etc.) since having a single help number is desirable for easy remembrance. Most of the better ones do have direct toll-free numbers (in US atleast) for sub-departments such as internet, but almost no users actually remember to ask for or write them down :)
  4. IVRs that don't allow you to answer until an entire set of options is read - this is still common though thankfully not as much as before. The better ones allow you to quickly press any entry you want to get to the next menu level and also add a warning at the start if menu choices have changed recently
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For outbound call centres, there is mistrust of the caller and whether the call is legit due to bombardment of automated spam calls. I wouldn't trust a person who is calling in to ask for my financial information. There's a lot of skepticism there.

For inbound call centres, there is the frustration of not seeing who is on the other end and whether or not they are performing what you need them to perform (such as changing something on the account). Lack of visual confirmation.

When I'm calling them, I hope that the person on the other end understands my request and has the capacity/empowerment to assist me with fixing/answering my query.

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People hate different types of call centers for different reasons. @Pdxd had a solid explanation of why people are averse to outbound call centers.

For inbound call centers, there are a number of UX issues that just can't be addressed without an interface.

  1. No search: Users can't query the knowledge base/FAQ via phone.
  2. No overview: It's impossible for users to know the depth of the call prior to actually getting some information (ie. how many times they'll have to "press X"). According to this article, "customers utilizing web self-service can reduce phone call volume by 15-35%, and reduce email volume by 25-70%." When users know what they need on-hand can improve call center UX.
  3. No navigation: It's difficult for users to navigate between "states" (if you can call them that). Waiting for an aural prompt for the menu options slows the process.
  4. No history: if you've previously called (even about the same issue multiple times), it's rare that they'll bucket you appropriately or route your call directly to the support center you need. Some services (although I can't remember which) will record the last call you had with them and immediately prompt you with "Are you still having a problem with X? If so, press 1."
  5. No duration indication: There's no real way to know how long users actually have to spend on the phone. While this is true of searching, forums, and FAQs, you at least have the illusion of control. And while I can't find the study on satisfaction improvements by actually telling users how long they'll be waiting. This UC Berkeley PhD paper The Experienced Utility of Queuing discusses some of the effects of open-ended vs. predictable waiting. Anecdotally, being told that I'll be helped in X minutes makes me less disgruntled (as long as it's reasonably accurate).

If you want to learn a bit more about this stuff read this article or search for "wait time perception."

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I'm not sure it's the call quality customers have an issue with. A lot of factors go into the experience...

Did I have to use an IVR? Was that a painful process? Can I understand the agent? Is what I'm asking for against the company policy? Did I screw up?

It's human nature to want to blame others for our own mistakes which is why customer satisfaction with call centers is often low.

Hope this was insightful.

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