2015-22-May-Peek.jpg

I not only welcome our future robot overlords, I work with teams to build them.

Of course this line is a little tongue in cheek, but many people talk about automation systems as if the people who build them are unwittingly (or perhaps in full knowledge) building the future skynet that will bring about humanity's last days. I've always fallen into the star-trek camp of automation, where computers help to reveal the vastness of what lies beyond our current limitations in a world ironically abundant with scarcity, rather than the 2001 vision of the future where HAL attempts to murder his crew because of a programming conflict.

Each of these perspectives is worthy of consideration, and with that consideration remain two indisputable truths:

  1. Automation is changing the nature of work itself
  2. Interactive voice response systems (IVRs), and automated attendant systems, are an abomination that must be scrubbed from the face of the planet.

Your Call Is Important to Us (But Not as Important as Our Cost Structure)

Why do I hate IVRs? I hate them because they are brazenly inauthentic at every level and they veer from the guidepost that all automation projects should aim for -- improving the quality of service.

Inauthenticity -- The specious platitudes expressed by an unemotional machine can be infuriating to even the most patient of souls. Your call is not only less important than cost control, your call is so much less important that many IVR implementations remove the possibility of the caller opting out of the robot goat rodeo. Even web channels have ways to chat with a human when problems arise. Removing all possibility of human connection is not a recipe for good customer service, it's a guarantee for low customer satisfaction.

Poorly Conceived -- IVRs -- whether based on touch tone, keypad entry or voice recognition -- are not designed to improve levels of service. IVRs are designed to reduce costs while attempting, and often failing, to maintain minimally acceptable service levels. And this is exactly where automation becomes evil. When automation does not improve quality of the product or service, it's evil.

Good Implementations Start With Good Concepts

Automating QA tests is good because it not only reduces costs and increases speed to market, but it also improves the quality of the product being created via an evolving body of repeatable test cases that grow to the point of being an “always on testing service” that can identify and prevent problems before they are introduced into production.

Automating QA changes the nature of the QA profession by removing tedium of test execution and reporting, and replacing it with challenging work like testing strategy, developing ways to compress testing cycles, and closing with the analysis and synthesis of testing results. Changing work to make it more challenging, rewarding and valuable to the employer is good and not dehumanizing.

Automating deployment and release procedures is good because it not only reduces costs and increases speed to market but it also improves the quality of the product being released via an evolving body of repeatable release processes that can lower mean time to repair when problems do arise.

Automation release management changes the nature of the software development and operations professions by unshackling employees from midnight deployment windows, and freeing release management and operations personnel to focus on challenging work like evaluating the health of the actual product being released. Changing work to allow employees to move closer to the value proposition of the company helps employees see the higher degree of value they are delivering.

Less Is Not More In This Case

The web itself is one big automation effort. The web doesn’t hurt customer service, it enhances service by offering real self service to a customer base by putting more information, options, functionality and control into the hands of the customer. And it does so while reducing the cost of providing the service and creating high paying, quality careers for people. IVRs do the opposite of all these things (other than reducing costs of service … it does that very well indeed): less information, less options, less functionality, less control, less quality jobs.

I’ve been known to hate on SharePoint. At least some people actively like it and are disappointed when the next release or implementation doesn’t come out. I’ve been known to hate on UX poseurs. At least some people believe they get some value out of graphic design sold under false pretenses. I’ve never in my professional or personal life ever heard anyone express any level of joy at the prospect of interacting with the IVR.

Even dealing with Comcast’s retention department is more appealing than being a rat trapped in the IVR maze. If you are one of the people lined up against efforts to automate business processes, at least fight the fight where everyone is in agreement: Kill the IVRs. Kill them all.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  Dan Zen