Thinking About Phone Trees, and an Annoying Call I Had to Make

I came across an article from Nielsen Norman Group titled “The UX of Phone-Tree Systems.” It talks about how to improve the usability of phone trees, those automated systems that give you a list of options and a number to press for each one. It just so happened that I had to use one of these recently, and this article highlighted what found so annoying about that call.

I was at the airport and I needed to get to a nearby hotel. The hotel’s website mentioned a shuttle, but it didn’t mention a schedule, so I assumed that I had to call to request a pickup.

When I called, I was greeted by a rather chipper voice:

Hello, and thanks for calling [hotel]. We know you want to talk, so let’s jump right to it.

Want to stay with us sometime soon? Awesome! For a reservations team member who can help, press 1.

Interested in a small event, or letting us host your group? Our sales and marketing team can’t wait to chat. Press 2.

Interested in discussing corporate rates, business travel needs, or if you need to discuss an existing event, our director of sales would love to talk. Press 3.

Need to track down someone staying with us, or just to chat with our incredible front desk team? Press 0.

It took a moment for me to realize that I should select the option to talk to the front desk.

As I waited for the front desk to pick up, I felt an immediate sense of irritation. The first thought I had was: Why would you say "let's jump right to it" and then give me such a long-winded message that doesn't even have an option for the most common thing people call for?

(That last part may be an exaggeration, but I think it stands to reason that it’s at least a common thing to call for.)

To be fair, a lot of airport hotels that I’ve called don’t have a dedicated option for shuttle pickup, so why was I so annoyed this time?

One reason was, as I mentioned, how long-winded the message was. I had to stop and think before picking the right option because the key phrase, “front desk,” was hidden in a longer phrase.

One of the guidelines in the Nielsen Norman Group article is “Be concise”:

Trapped callers do not want to listen to advertisements, promotions, or wordy messages that ramble on about things that are irrelevant and prevent them from accomplishing their current task.

There weren’t any advertisements or promotions before the options were presented, but the options themselves felt wordy.

The other reason didn’t hit me until I read this bit from another guideline:

Users expect higher levels of authenticity from organizations than ever before.

That word, “authenticity,” struck a chord with me. I realized that was the other reason I was annoyed: The message felt inauthentic. The enthusiastic and more casual tone seemed like an attempt to be more “relatable” to customers, but it felt hollow. A relatable attitude is not a substitute for giving customers what they actually need.

As a comparison, here’s what I got when I called a different airport hotel I’ve stayed at:

Thank you for calling [hotel], home of the [hotel restaurant]. If you know the extension of the person you are trying to reach, please dial it now.

For airport shuttle pickup, please press 1. For reservations, please press 2. For sales and catering, please press 3. For accounting, please press 4. For lost and found, please press 5. For food and beverage, please press 6. And for all other inquiries, please hold to speak to the next available attendant. Thank you and have a great day.

The very first option was to request a shuttle pickup. As a result, I could make a selection right away without having to listen to the entire recording. And even if I did have to listen to the whole thing, it was actually shorter than the first recording! That’s despite it having a longer introduction and more options, because it didn’t waste its time on wordy descriptions. I’d argue that this second recording was more usable.

Okay, I don’t work in hospitality or anything like that, so I’m probably being a little presumptuous here. And I’ll admit, this particular usability problem was pretty minor, and I was probably more irritable than usual because of the circumstances I was in. Still, I think the article is worth sharing, and this experience happened to coincide with when I found the article.

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Philip Chung
Philip Chung
Software Developer