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Supporting Vulnerable Customers: Voice

5 Minute Read

This month we've been exploring some of the ways contact centre teams can better support vulnerable customers. In the final blog in our series, we'll be taking a deeper look into the voice channel and the strategies and practices that optimise caller experience for everyone. 

For most organisations, the primary voice channel is still their telephone system. That means your customers are encountering your IVRs, audio prompts and messages and that will include vulnerable customers of all sorts.


Let’s start with language and with a quick look at different languages.

A native-language option is essential. Even where someone has some skill in another language, having that native option provides a whole new level of comfort and ease of understanding. Add in the complexities that any vulnerable customer may experience and having that native language option could be transformative for them.

Indeed, the provision of another language may well be the single step that brings more people to your contact centre, since the knowledge or even the fear that we can’t communicate will simply prevent most of us picking up the phone.

Talking plainly

That said, let’s look at how we should be using any individual language within the voice channel.

It starts with plain language. Conversational, simple language that reflects how human beings communicate on a day-to-day basis.

Avoid jargon and don’t assume that everyone knows what an abbreviation or acronym means. Introducing these can make anyone who isn’t familiar with them feel excluded. That can certainly ramp up levels of anxiety and promotes confusion.

For the same reasons, using overly long, complicated and unnecessarily complex words and sentences should be avoided. Short, to-the-point messages are easier for everyone to understand, which is particularly necessary for vulnerable customers.

Balancing your IVR menus

On that point, when designing your IVR options, you want to avoid loading lots of different services into each option. Cramming too many query types or departments under each option can quickly overload a caller’s capacity to process the information and make a decision on who they need to talk to, which is going to lead to either random button pressing, or a hang up.

This is a balancing act though. You could increase the number of options in your IVR, but if you have a lot of services, you’re probably also looking to keep the number of options to a manageable level.

If you’ve got 7 or 8 different options, that can quickly overwhelm a caller – because they’re trying to work out which button to press. In best practice we recommend no more than 4 options in any menu, if you can achieve it. More than this and our ability to choose the right one will quickly degrade.

Finally, on the overall design, you also want to avoid many, many different levels of menus. The more decisions you force a caller to make, the greater the risk you’ll push up anxiety and frustration levels and confuse or lose a caller in the system.

So how you design and script your IVR is a balance, which varies a lot between every organisation.

Audio quality

A slightly less nuanced consideration is the quality of your audio. Telephone systems already limit the potential for high quality audio – they’re mostly designed to take lower quality file formats.

But what that means is that all your audio is already guaranteed to be less than perfect, so it’s important to start with the clearest possible professional recording. That’s really important for vulnerable customers – the obvious example is anyone with any level of hearing impairment because any background noise from an amateur recording will complicate their ability to understand.

Dynamic IVRs

There’s another way to simplify the caller journey for vulnerable customers, and that’s to avoid them having to tackle your IVR menus at all.

I’m talking about Dynamic IVR. This is where (if your phone system can do it), you hook up the system to your customer information database (or CRM) and use it to identify the customers who fall into the vulnerable category. Instead of pushing them to the potentially difficult, normal IVR route, it plays them a simplified message and prioritises routing them to an appropriately skilled agent.

What qualifies someone as vulnerable could be set within your CRM – based on any particular information you have, from something as simple as age, to literally having a ‘vulnerable’ category which is included in your database.

Voice recognition

Another technology that can complicate the journey is what most of us would think of as voice or speech recognition systems; when working with vulnerable customers they do have their limits.

Consider members of society who have any level of impairment to their speech and these systems can represent a real barrier. So think about providing alternative ways to access your IVR – or provide other channels.

Whether you have voice recognition, or a standard IVR system, at some point you’re going have to deal with the fact it doesn’t always understand - perhaps someone pressed the wrong button, or they did nothing at all.

This is where you’ll need to offer retries. When scripting these, consider the following:

Limit the number of retries. Generally, no more than 3 before the system defaults to putting someone through to an agent. You want to increase the empathy with each further attempt, putting emphasis on the fact that the system is struggling, and take the ‘fault’ that it’s not understanding away from the caller.

What about the voices?

Telephony is the channel of escalation – the channel where the customer is motivated to talk to a human being and has given up control of their personal time in order to do so.

First impressions count, so the voice used for IVR prompts has to be warm, friendly, calm and empathetic to build trust and reassurance. Voices also need to be relatable to the caller. If a caller can’t connect and relate to the voice they hear, whatever you’ve scripted will not be received in the way you may have intended.

And the music

In the in-queue and on-hold spaces of your caller journey, your customers are, most likely, going to hear music.

Selecting music is highly dependent on the situation within your contact centre and the scenarios in which you are working with your vulnerable customers.

The reason behind the customer’s call feeds directly into their mood-state. On a line dealing with bereavement, for example, it’s obviously the case that a heavy metal track is not going to be universally accepted. But, by contrast, you don’t want to patronise by playing overly sombre music either.

This approach is especially important where it’s not possible to know whether any individual caller is vulnerable or not. By tailoring the music to the scenario, you are better placed to be sure that the music will be acceptable to all your callers.

To give you an example, we completed a project with the DWP. They had long queue times for customers needing to discuss Universal Credit. Their music was a single 60 second loop from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. So, you’re a caller, you’re stressed, there’s no digital alternative to making this phone call, and you’ve got the same little clip of classical music droning on and on. How would you be feeling when the agent picked up? And how do you think some of those interactions tended to go?

In this case we created a 30 minute mixed selection of about 10 different music tracks, all selected to be calming and relaxing, because people had no choice but to wait.

Another no-no is using music with lyrics. Lyrics are a minefield, because unless you’re super-careful, there could be something in there that triggers or exacerbates a mood-state, and you have no way of knowing from one person to the next, what that lyric will be.

At a simpler level, if you’re also mixing messages with the music, lyrics detract from our ability to take in information. Even if the music is dropped to a lower volume during the message, it’s another voice in the background which is distracting and confusing.

If you’re using a dynamic IVR as I’ve already mentioned, and you’re identifying callers who are known to be vulnerable, you have an immediate head start. Using the dynamic IVR, you can place these callers into their own queue, with a tailored mix of music and/or messages. You can also prioritise them so they’re not left alone with the music at all.

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