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Kai Ryssdal: When was the last time you called a company or a corporate office and the phone was actually picked up by a human being? Chances are it's been a while. Most companies use some type of automated phone system. And most of us have been driven to distraction getting pushed into a menu within a menu or repeating ourselves to voice recognition software.
Well, companies say they feel our pain -- kind of. They're not hiring more live bodies, of course. But they do want us to have a better automated experience, as Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.
Ashley Milne-Tyte:Insurance company Aflac sees its brand as friendly and lighthearted, qualities embodied by its waddling mascot.
The Aflac duck. But that affability didn't translate to the company's automated phone line.
Automated voice: Policy holders, or if you are interested in becoming a policy holder, press one. Account managers, press two. Providers...
And so on. Those robotic tones greeted callers for years. Last year, Aflac began an automation overhaul.
Virgil Miller is the company's vice president of client services.
Virgil Miller: When you call in, we want you to feel that "I am dealing with a company that values me, and is family oriented and of course, makes me feel secure." So we were looking for a voice that reflected those type of things.
The old voice belonged to a member of staff. The new one belongs to an actress. This recording has now rolled out in almost every state.
New automated voice: Hello and thank you for calling Aflac. Please press one if you are an Aflac policy holder. If you are an account manager, press two.
Miller: The first time I heard it, I just started smiling, actually, and I knew it was the one.
Miller says branding was the main reason for the friendliness upgrade. Still, he hopes the warmer tone and more natural script will persuade more of Aflac's callers to stay within the system rather than switch to an agent.
Automation saves companies a lot of money. According to Forrester Research, a call handled by a person generally costs around $6. That can go as high as $30 for a really thorny issue. A call handled by an automated agent costs between five and 25 cents. But given how frustrating these systems can be, is voice quality even an issue for customers?
Richard Feinberg teaches consumer sciences at Purdue University. He says when people dial that 1-800 number they just want their problem taken care of. But...
Richard Feinberg: Voice quality does play a role in the initial perceptions of whether or not a problem will be resolved.
He says if a recorded voice doesn't seem authoritative or, yes, friendly enough -- the customer is more likely to hit "zero."
GM Voices in Atlanta -- no relation to General Motors -- helps companies create their phone personas. Today, producer Alex Buckellew is directing actor Jason Elkins during a recording session for a wireless carrier.
Alex Buckellew: I am rolling.
Jason Elkins: Sorry, I still didn't get that. Please tell me the phone number starting with the area code. You can also enter it on your keypad.
Sound familiar? GM Voices CEO Marcus Graham says business from big companies is up 17 percent.
Marcus Graham: What's happening is these large companies are realizing that they're turning their relationships over to these automated systems, and they do warrant time and energy to make sure it's a pleasant exchange and experience.
Sometimes those attempts backfire. Nuance, a speech-technology company, says a client sought its services after trying automated greetings like "What's up?" and using canned laughter. Callers were not amused. They demanded a real person.
Phone manner may not even matter in a few decades. Richard Feinberg of Purdue University says today's youngest customers expect to solve problems via computer or phone app.
Feinberg: In 20 years, people are gonna wonder why they ever picked up the phone.
And perhaps why they slammed it down. Have I answered all your questions? Goodbye.
Ryssdal: Ashley Milne Tyte for us from New York.