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Fed up with IVR, firm answers all calls with humans

The backlash against automated phone systems has been fierce, and one company has decided to do away with it altogether.

Scott Gaidano is fed up. He's fed up with Interactive Voice Response (IVR), automated answering systems and lengthy phone trees. In fact, he's been fed up for a while.

That's why Gaidano doesn't use those systems at DriveSavers Data Recovery Inc., his Novato, Calif.-based data recovery company.

"We started this business about 20 years ago, and even then 800 numbers were pretty much hell for the person calling [them]," Gaidano said. "It seems like over the years it's gotten worse and worse."

Gaidano's view is hardly unique. A recent series of commercials for Citibank exemplifies the frustration that many consumers feel with automated phone systems. In one, a man attempts to enter his account number on the phone as his kitchen catches fire, and in another, his train goes into a tunnel just as he gets a live person on his cell phone. Paul English made himself famous by creating, a Web site that lists how consumers can get directly to a live customer service agent with the correct series of touch-tone entries for hundreds of companies. English is now working with Microsoft to create a "GetHuman" standard for customer service phone systems.

At DriveSavers, the endless menu of touch-tone options is not a factor because there isn't one. Customers generally call with some sort of emergency -- many are looking for help recovering data after a fire. That means a call must be answered quickly and by a live person, Gaidano insists. There are about 80 employees at DriveSavers, and everyone, including Gaidano himself, answers the phone. The company has a filtering system where incoming calls first reach a group of about 25 inbound marketers. If those calls aren't answered after a ring or two, they're forwarded to another group of about 20 who take calls but also have other responsibilities, and then they go on to the engineers and then to management.

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"We've got it down to a science, where you won't get a voicemail, you'll get a human voice in two or three rings," Gaidano said.

Of course, asking the management team to answer incoming customer calls is hardly an option for everyone.

"It's good marketing for the CEO to be picking up the phone, but it's probably not the best use of his time," said Liz Roche, managing partner of Customers Incorporated, a Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy. "I really don't think it's an option for a company with any large customer base."

Identifying customers, particularly high-value customers, and sending them to the person in an organization who can best serve them has been "one of the holy grails of CRM," Roche said, but the technology hasn't kept pace.

"It's forced organizations into this black-and-white scenario where either every customer goes through the IVR or every employee becomes a receptionist," she added.

For DriveSavers, this means paying particular attention to a potential employee's phone skills.

"We make sure everyone we hire has the capability to explain the product and take an order," Gaidano said. "They go through a standard interview and then will talk on the phone so we get an idea of their speech patterns, nuances, when they use slang. That eliminates maybe 30% of candidates."

Calls to DriveSavers generally require a diagnostic conversation, and the company may get 1,000 calls in a day. That's a far cry from many organizations' inbound call volume, though companies are attempting to extend their call centers throughout the larger organization. It's happening at some small and medium-sized businesses, and technology vendors are answering the call. Siemens, for example, has released a collaboration tool that

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