About Brad Lehman

Brad Lehman is a Professional Services Consultant for Angel. In that role, he designs and develops customized systems to match the client’s business requirements. He brings more than 20 years of professional experience in developing data-driven user interfaces. Brad’s other background is in music, with a doctoral degree in harpsichord performance. Harpsichord players use carefully-controlled silence in the right places to clarify the music.  Using musical listening skills and audio-production skills, Brad brings that same care to the crafting of IVR prompts. The pace of the IVR’s recorded speech has to be exactly right, so the caller will have enough time to understand what was said, and will respond at the right moment with a confident decision.  That’s the obsession that Brad likes to write about in this forum: making it easy for the caller to get through the questions, through principles of well-organized wording and perfect pacing.

Dial (888) 583-2801 for IVR Horrors

A scary IVR experience!

Call (888) 583-2801, “ACME Supply for Super Geniuses.” It is full of problems in the design and delivery, showing how bad an IVR can be when a company truly does not care about customer relations.

Some of the horrific elements of this IVR satire are:

  • Talking way too much.
  • Talking too fast.
  • Begging the callers to please listen carefully and pay attention.
  • Telling callers they are very important, while giving them no information or satisfaction.
  • Error-handling routines that sound belligerent and impatient.
  • Running the options together too fast for the caller to do anything.
  • Important announcements inserted into the IVR as an afterthought, in text-to-speech delivery that sounds unintelligible, and in places that are difficult for the caller to find.
  • Begging the callers to use the web instead of the phone; they called on the phone, and are expecting service.
  • Announcing a web address that is too long and messy to remember, and saying it only once.
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Why Can’t I Have Stereo CD-Quality Audio On My Phone System?

Audio Quality

I’m occasionally asked:  “We hired our own voice talent for our IVR, but why doesn’t the speech sound nearly as good over the phone as it did in the recording studio?” They then present a stereo CD-quality recording, and ask how it must be processed to make it work properly on the phone.

There are various relevant issues in digital recording and network transmission, but for simplicity we’ll focus on frequency response, sampling rate, and perception of speech.

Human Perception

People are good at making sense of what they hear, even when most of the information is missing. Our brains guess to fill the gaps. To demonstrate this phenomenon, I have simulated a call with cell phone drop-outs, no high frequencies, and the distraction of dogs barking.

You probably understood at least 90 percent of these recordings, and could figure out what the speech instructs you to do. Thanks to the listener’s ability to make good guesses, dealing with errors in the signal, the phone’s audio transmission doesn’t have to be excellent; a clearly-spoken message is still comprehensible, even over distractions and drop-outs.

The samples above have a digital sampling rate of 8000 per second—the industry standard for speech over a phone—while “CD quality” sampling is much higher at 44100 per second. Additionally, I applied “lowpass” filtering, which discards all the high-pitched (treble) content. That’s why the result sounds so muffled and un-lifelike.

Digital Sampling Rates and the Frequency Limit

A sound wave in air is a pattern of rapid changes in air pressure. To make a recording of that sound, we have to measure that pattern.  It looks like a complicated set of wiggles, if we graph it.  Here is a representation of a spoken syllable:

Wave Graph

This example has several interlocked patterns that are repeating, but also subtly changing.  Notice how the big wiggles have several layers of sub-wiggles within them. The low and high parts of the sound, ranging from bass to treble, are different frequencies of vibration happening simultaneously: slower or faster wiggles. Frequency is measured in Hertz (Hz), cycles per second.

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IVR Design: What Does the Listener Need to Know, and When?

Radio Advertisement

Recently, I came across a fictitious radio advertisement in “Henry Reed’s Baby-sitting Service,” a children’s book from 1966 by Keith Robertson. The staff at the local radio station had written and produced the ad for Henry’s summer business:

(“Mary Had a Little Lamb” jingle sung by a girl) Male announcer: “Folks, Mary wouldn’t have much trouble today. Her education wouldn’t be interrupted by her little lamb following her to school. Because she would simply telephone the Henry Reed Baby-Sitting Service, and in the twitch of a lamb’s tail, a competent baby-sitter would be there. Henry Reed and his partner Miss Margaret Glass offer reliable, efficient baby-sitting at prices you can afford. Call Henry at HA 9-1234 or Margaret at HA 9-1763. If your little lamb wants to learn to dance, Margaret can teach him ballet. If you want your child to be able to communicate with your French poodle—or possibly call General de Gaulle—Henry can coach him in French. If you live in the Grover’s Corner area and you need a baby-sitter for a lion or a lamb call Henry Reed’s Baby-Sitting Service!”

While reading this aloud, my IVR-design antennae went up immediately. Would this be an effective advertisement? Could it be organized better?

The design principles of radio advertisement and IVR service are similar—both must ensure that the person listening to the information receives it in a sequence that is easy to understand and easy to use.

  • Do I care to pay attention to the rest of this message?
  • If I do, does it tell me what I really need to know?
  • Does it tell me how I can respond, without confusing me?
  • Does it give me enough opportunity to remember or write down the pertinent information?

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IVR Design: Just Kiss Her

blah blah

Has this ever happened to you:  you call someone’s automated phone system, or it robo-calls you, and then it jabbers at you?

The jabbering phone system does any of these things:

  • It blasts you with monologues before you get to do anything.
  • It begs you to “please listen carefully,” which is insulting, because it implies that you already weren’t listening adequately!
  • It asks 40-word questions with no clear point.
  • It begs you to “please choose from the following options,” as if you weren’t clever enough to recognize that a menu is coming.  (Why not just say “Subscriber Menu,” or start the list with a one-second silence or a chime?)
  • It eventually gets you to some list of options, but then they all run together too fast, not letting you think or respond.

How does this make you feel, as the customer? Phone robots are supposed to be interactive, right, not like TV or radio ads?

This robot, however, is talking so fast, or so much, that you just stop listening.  You don’t know when it’s your turn to do anything.  It’s not letting you cooperate, even if you could figure out what it wants.  It seems that if the company built it badly, they must not really care about treating customers well.

Imagine it like this famous scene in “It’s A Wonderful Life:”

Jimmy Stewart is walking with Donna Reed in the moonlight. He’s prattling on and on, trying to say romantic things to impress her.  Donna is obviously distracted, even turning away.  Jimmy, oblivious, keeps talking.

The guy who’s been watching from the porch next door yells: “Why don’t ya kiss her, ‘stead of talkin’ her to death?”

Jimmy: “How’s that?”

Neighbor, slower: “Why don’t ya kiss her, ‘stead of talkin’ her to death?!”

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Press 4 for “Funner Options”, and use our Facebook fan page!

This is brilliant. We can’t take credit for it, as some competitor apparently built this client’s system, but it’s a great idea. It would be easy to build the same thing in our own software.

As it says in some wall postings on the Facebook fan page for a popular candy bar:

“Hotline rocks! Thanks for being an organization that’s not afraid to show their sense of humor! I believe you just upped your popularity even more by doing that!”

“Loooooooooooooove the hotline more companies need to have a sense of humor this way!!”

“Love the hotline! Hilarious. Thanks for the laughs.”

1-800-295-0051 OMG LOL!!!!! ok press 1 for english or 2 for spanish, then hit 4 for “funner options” then hit 7. you will be rolling on the floor laughing!”

Exactly. Dial that number, listen through the short advertisement of their product, and the address of this Facebook fan group. Then, wait through the menu that offers 1 or 2 for the language, but do nothing. After a short pause, it gives additional options. (An “Easter egg” hidden feature that nobody expects on a boring corporate product line, and that’s why it is fun.) …For Pig Latin, esspray orway aysay eethray. For a knock-knock joke and other funner stuff, press or say 4.

Way down into that inner “funner stuff” menu, which itself was pretty funny, option 7 tells the caller about the different kinds of cooties, and how to get rid of them. Well done, and quite entertaining!

Option 5 is pretty good, too: “Hear me give a noogie to the operator next to me”, and then it sounds like the two guys clowning in a call center.

As of this morning, that Facebook group has 214,000 fans. That’s 214,000 potential customers for their product, plus all their family and friends.

And, if these fans are spreading excitement about the IVR hotline by word of mouth (and by forwarding e-mails and Facebook statuses)…WOW! That’s where I heard about it: seeing a thing on the Internet from somebody I’ve never met…advertising an IVR system as “this is so much fun, you’ve gotta call it!”

Some observations:

Once, when I called it back to hear some of the other options, it didn’t give any of the extras. There could be several possible causes for that: (1) Maybe those were temporarily taken down? (2) Maybe the system is capturing Caller ID, and deliberately not playing the extras for subsequent calls: so, a caller won’t keep calling it back all day and running up the charges. But also, it forces the caller to use a different phone, which gives another opportunity to capture another Caller ID, store it into a database, do a reverse lookup, get a mailing address, and send out some promotional materials…. Clever!

I waited a while, and tried it from a different phone. On my first three attempts in that session, the system did not answer. It gave me a busy signal. Did the company get overwhelmed by the success of this application and its viral spread of enthusiasm? Didn’t they scale it big enough when they built it? What platform are they using that can’t handle all the traffic….?  That’s a problem: being ready for overwhelming success.

Eventually, I got through again, and it let me get to all the options each time. So, maybe they aren’t blocking multiple calls by Caller ID, after all…although it would be clever, and might become necessary.

The “press or say” stuff on the options is annoying, and this doesn’t really need to be a speech recognition system. It would be just as funny and useful if it were keypad-only (DTMF). But hey, it’s their money, and if they want to create more error-handling problems for themselves with this speech design, they are welcome to it. When some kid is playing this phone call on a cell phone’s speaker to amuse a friend, and they’re laughing, the laughing and other noises shouldn’t make it cut off the prompts.

The guy introducing the Spanish option obviously isn’t a Spanish speaker. That’s a demerit. They could have done better. He’s a good actor for the funny options, though: deadpan enough to mock other bad IVR systems and their cliches, but giving just enough twist to the delivery that the caller realizes it’s funny.

All around, it’s brilliant in generating traffic to advertise their product. If they’ve considered those other problems, they’ve done a great thing here: marketing to the approximately fourth-grade level, giving it some viral hooks for free publicity, and making it “funner” than everybody else’s boring hotlines.

Again, that phone number is: 1-800-295-0051

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