When Tech gets counter productive - automated calls

A couple of days ago, I was travelling with a client when he was disturbed by repeated incoming calls from a landline, flashing on his mobile screen. Excusing himself, he picked up the call and after listening for just 3 to 4 seconds, hung up quickly with an expletive (which was unlike him). ‘Its one of those scam automated calls to pay some bill’, he told me, adding ‘they have become such a pain in the neck, I get these calls all the time, now I am going to block this number’, he told me, before resuming our conversation.

Two things struck me about the incident. First of all, he did not even hang on the line long enough to know who was calling him. Secondly, he knew that it was for bill payment (meaning it was a legitimate call by a company that had permission to use his registered phone number), yet he referred to it as a ‘scam call’. Which is not very good for the customer satisfaction rating or the image of the company making these calls.
Thinking back, like me, and this client, I am sure you would have experienced an upswing in such calls since the past 1 to 2 years. I have personally received automated calls for several purposes
1)      From airlines, informing of flight schedules and delays 
2)      From my ISPs and telecom company, informing of bill dispatch and payment dates (Both Tikona and BSNL)
3)      From financial institutions informing me of policy/loan due date (Both ICICI Prudential and HDFC)
In all the cases, even where the intent was to be helpful, I have found automated calls to be intrusive, impersonal and irritating. Strangely, on the few occasions when the call was made by a real live person, the irritation factor was much less.
Let’s look at some basic human truths. No one likes being reminded to pay bills repeatedly.. In qualitative research, consumers have told me that a reminder once, a little in advance and not too much in advance, is useful. Maybe a week before the due date, which allows them to put it on their to do list. However, its important that the reminders are not intrusive. An email or a message, sent a couple of times, is helpful. Repeated phone calls definitely classify as intrusive.
Here is what I would like to tell the companies that use automated phone calls as a means of communication with their customers
1)      Make just one call, not repeated calls
I have observed that I get repeated automated calls from Tikona. Till I hear the entire message, they will call me back because their job  is not complete. Till my bill is paid, I get repeated calls because the task is not complete. The incompletion is on their job list, but I get repeated reminders for something that has not even made it to my job list yet!
If a customer has cut your call midway, it can only mean one thing – he does not want to hear more of the message. If he cuts the follow up repeatedly, it means one thing – he does not want to take that call any more. Then, you can relay the message through SMS or an OTT messaging app.
Alternatively, you can preface the call by asking if the person to hang up, to indicate that they would like to READ the message rather than listen to it. That way, the company has also gotten a tacit acknowledgement of the call from the user, assuming that the purpose of the call is to get an acknowledgement.
2)      Use data and research to figure what consumers want
The virtue of an automated call, is that it does not need a person to dial it hence it can happen at a users convenience, even outside of regular working hours. It would be useful for companies to first find out a preferred time, or at least attempt to do so, before placing calls
Also, an analysis of the call pattern for each customer can tell the company something about them. Do they ignore or cut the call more than once through the day, but pick it up in the evenings? Do they repeatedly cut the call without listening? By analyzing such data, and maybe backing it up with a small survey, the companies can actually tailor call strategy to the customers needs, making them feel valued and listened to, rather than irritated.
3)      Make the automated callers more interesting
One of the most irritating factors in these calls, is the irritating, inhuman drone of the callers voice, often in heavily accented, artificial English. When you do not have a live person on the line, you are already at a disadvantage with the consumer, making them feel that the interaction is clinical and impersonal.
I have seen both elders and kids enjoying interaction with Alexa and Google Assistant, proving that even a disembodied voice can facilitate engagement. So, why not give a voice assistant a personality, or even the ability to answer questions, on an automated call? Why not create a voice bot? Why not introduce it to customers through promotion so that people are not thrown when he/she calls? Nowadays many companies even name the chatbot assistants on their site. It's much more important for a caller to identify themselves on a call. It’s the first thing we do when we call someone!
Ultimately, l think that automated calls should be ‘opt in’ or at the very least, one should give customers the choice to opt out.
The reality is that these calls create immense irritation for customers and ultimately, this reflects badly on the company that initiates them.

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