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British IT Pro 'Cracks' Call Center Menus

A British IT project manager and former COBOL programmer has become so frustrated with IVR (interactive voice recognition) he's set up a free website to help other call center users save time.

"If you call HMRC [the British equivalent to the IRS], it can take you six minutes listening to all the waffle before you can start doing anything useful," self-described "call center menu enthusiast" Nigel Clarke told Information Week. "The website should be the place for that kind of thing, not the call." He also estimates that HMRC offers no fewer than seven menu levels, including 80 options.

Clarke, who has worked in IT for organizations including the U.K. arm of insurer Prudential, has been studying the somewhat obscure "science" of the call center IVR taxonomy for about seven years. Through that research, he said, he's logged more than 12,000 calls and has worked out the menu structure of more than 130 prominent British retail, financial and government organizations, including HMRC, Argo, EasyJet, BT, HSBC and the NHS.

[ When it comes to taxes, Parliament says Google and Amazon are not paying their fair share. Read more at British MPs Attack Google On Taxes. ]

Armed with this arcane but possibly useful knowledge, Clarke set up a website called Please Press 1, which offers a free directory that allows callers to skip ahead and go directly where they need to go instead of plowing that, er, "waffle."

As one of the U.K.'s busiest call centers, HMRC gets 79 million calls per year. That means U.K. taxpayers could potentially end up spending 4.3 million working hours simply navigating menus, Clarke estimates. But with better menu design, he said, at least 3 million caller hours could be saved just at HMRC.

Other examples of egregious IVR design include Lloyds Bank (78 menu options over 7 levels) and retailer Sainsbury's (29 menu options over 6 levels). Buying a TV off the Argos system, Clarke said, will take you 2 minutes and 7 seconds as you punch your way through 73 menu options over some five levels. "I've been working in IT for over 30 years, and nothing gets me riled up like having my time wasted through inefficient design," he said.

In terms of cost, Clarke says that combined navigation time across all British call centers could be costing U.K. consumers as much as £100 million ($152 million) in phone charges every year. (He calculated this by a sum involving 40 million adults in the country making 24 calls per year to call centers, or over 960 million calls.)

In the service's launch announcement, one beta user described it as "the biggest breakthrough this side of the Enigma machine," referring to the breaking of that fiendishly hard Wehrmacht coding device by British spymasters in WWII.

According to Clarke, nearly 70% of the British call centers he researched also employ lengthy introductions or additional advertising between menu options. "Some might say this is the modern equivalent of Dante's circles of Hell," he added.

Clarke has also started studying the U.S. market. You may or may not be cheered to hear his verdict: "In America they use too much speech recognition -- which, if anything, is even more hated than IVR."

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