Next Caller & ICMI

Conferences are fun. San Diego is fun. Needless to say, the Next Caller team is looking forward to heading to the ICMI Contact Center Expo in San Diego this week for the very first time. 

This will also be the first time that we can get together with our good friends at Zendesk to throw a happy hour on Wednesday evening of the conference. Details on that are in the most recent blog post at

Since Next Caller only recently launched at TechCrunch Disrupt in September 2013, most of the ICMI community may be unfamiliar with us.

So what is Next Caller?

Next Caller is advanced caller ID for businesses. Our database of over 220 million profiles is the largest in the US. Next Caller delivers important data on inbound callers in real time so that the customers never have to spell out bits of data over the phone, like their name and address, among other things. This saves time and money, but it also makes agents and customers happier since they can get right down to business on every call, rather than asking and answering mundane questions.

This video summarizes it succinctly:

Make sure to stop by the Next Caller booth, #335, and say hello! We are excited to be a part of this community. We hope to share our excitement by providing some free breath mints (much needed after talking all day at a conference) and sunscreen (much needed for that warm, San Diego sun). 

See you in sunny San Diego –

–Jeff Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)

About Customer Authentication

 by Laura Zegar (@LauraKZegar)

“Why do I always have to give the customer service rep my information again when I’ve already entered it in the automated phone system?”

Those were the first words out of my sister’s mouth when I told her I was writing a customer experience blog post on caller authentication. She’s asked that question many times. I’m sure you have, too.

Many callers dread a cumbersome authentication process. Who can blame them? Too much customer effort erodes the overall customer experience. Ask your customers to authenticate multiple times on one phone call or assign them complicated passwords, and they just might switch to your easy-to-do-business-with competitor.

American customers spend approximately 15 billion minutes per year on authentication. Guess who spends all those minutes with your customers? That’s right – your contact center agents. Over 25% of agent call handle time is spent solely on authentication.

Chances are, you can’t complete any revenue-generating business transactions with these customers until they’re successfully authenticated. Translation: You don’t make a single cent until you’ve verified your caller.

So how exactly does a poor authentication process impact the customer experience? Let’s walk through some common scenarios.

First, customers must manage multiple PINs, passwords and authentication questions across numerous service providers. Recalling the correct information for a specific provider is often challenging, particularly if your authentication includes complicated PINs or passwords with no significance to the customer.

Example: Bob calls your customer service number and attempts to authenticate in the IVR for a self-service transaction to verify his balance due. Unfortunately, he quickly realizes he can’t remember his PIN. He enters several of his commonly used PINs, hoping that one will successfully identify him. After multiple failed authentication attempts, Bob must either transfer to an agent for assistance or hang up and call back once he locates his PIN.

Not a good start to what should be a simple self-service transaction.

Even if customers know their credentials, their next hurdle is successfully completing the authentication in your IVR. Multi-layered authentication prompts may be confusing, or the IVR may not recognize a customer’s speech or accent. If your technology isn’t customer-friendly, your customers will either involuntarily transfer to an agent or, worse, voluntarily skip the IVR authentication process on future calls.

Example: Mary decides to call your customer service number, prepared with her PIN in hand. She selects the Spanish IVR option to verify her balance due and, when prompted, verbally provides the correct PIN in her regional Spanish accent. Unfortunately, your IVR only recognizes non-accented Spanish and fails to properly authenticate Mary. At this point, Mary must transfer to an agent or call the IVR back to manually key in her PIN.

Another bad start to a simple self-service transaction.

What about customers who do successfully authenticate in your IVR and transfer to an agent? They’re still not out of the woods. Their authentication may not transmit correctly to your agent, requiring the customer to authenticate a second time. And if the customer is transferred to another agent? That authentication may not transfer with them, either, requiring yet anotherverification.

Example: Mike dials your customer service number and quickly authenticates with his PIN in the IVR. He verifies his balance due, then decides to transfer to an agent for questions about his bill. The agent greets Mike and repeats the authentication process.

You know what’s coming next.

Mike asks, “Why do I always have to give you guys my information again when I’ve already entered it in your automated phone system?”

The agent apologizes, explaining that she did not receive Mike’s information on her screen. She successfully authenticates Mike and determines that he must be transferred to another department for further assistance. Mike is transferred to another agent…who again repeats the authentication process.  

All this before Mike can even address his actual inquiry! Ouch.

Bob, Mary and Mike are just three examples of the authentication challenges faced by customers every day. Multiply these per customer, then per company, and we have a serious customer experience problem.

If your customers repeatedly fail the authentication process, it’s time to examine your overall people, process and technology capabilities to identify where the breakdown lies.

Are your agents comprehensively trained on your policies, procedures and authentication best practices? Is your authentication process simple yet robust? Have you leveraged reliable, smart technology to streamline the customer and agent user experience? And, most importantly, have you done all this with a customer-centric view?

With careful planning and execution, even small changes to one or more of these capabilities can yield significant improvement to your customer’s authentication experience.

Before you know it, your customers will be asking a different question when they call you: “Why aren’t my other service providers this easy to call?”

About Laura:

I’m a customer-centric manager with 15+ years of customer experience, strategy and operations expertise…and I’m pretty passionate about it!

Customer capabilities I’ve managed include experience and retention, strategy, system design and implementation, and contact center operations. My experience spans the wireless / telecommunications, retail, banking, IT, health care, sales, government and HR / benefits outsourcing industries.

Outside the customer world, I’m an equally passionate Chicago foodie with a penchant for fitness, design, style, social media…and everything else in between.

About a Great Customer Service Experience With Aetna & Why Social Media Is Huge For Customer Service

by Jeff Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)

In today’s day and age, we know people are more likely to report negative experiences than pleasant ones, and they have the medium to do that so easily. Whether it is on Yelp or Twitter, bad reviews are all the more common, and now they have the power to tarnish a brand’s reputation more than ever. That’s why it’s important to spread the word about companies who are doing a good job when you can, so I wanted to share an experience I had with Aetna back in December.

I recently joined Next Caller, and our company decided around the same time to use Aetna as a healthcare provider. With the Christmas/New Years festivities in full swing, our application got approved retroactive to a prior date while Aetna could sort through the holiday madness and provide individual policy numbers in the coming week. However, I was dealing with a medical emergency (what are the odds) at the same time and needed to see a doctor immediately. I tried calling the Aetna customer service line in the evening, but to my dismay, at 7:07 PM, I was told by the IVR that their phone lines close at 7 PM. Feeling like the world was out to get me, I took to Twitter, and admittedly I sent Aetna not the nicest tweet in the world that basically demanded why the world was not revolving around me in my time of need.

Within minutes, I had a response from Aetna.

Clearly, my “emergency” was not as urgent as I thought it was, because I fell asleep and responded the next morning. With some basic information e-mailed over to them, Aetna could then go ahead and provide me with the policy number I would need to provide to a doctor in order to be treated. Problem solved.

However, the message was encrypted, and the person I was corresponding with, who saw that I had sent my e-mail from an iPhone, tweeted back at me asking if I would like a phone call instead with the information since iPhones sometimes have a tough time with the encrypted message.

Within seconds, I was talking to Jennifer from Aetna over the phone. She gave me all of the information I needed. She then proceeded to tell me how she had peeked at the Next Caller website the night before after my initial tweet and asked me some questions about what I do. It’s not often that customer service representatives take an interest in you as an individual, but it was truly a pleasure to feel like I was an actual person over the phone that Aetna cared about, rather than someone they would just like to get off the phone with as soon as possible. In any case, I was on my way.

But it didn’t end there. Later on, I was at the pharmacy picking up a prescription, and I ran into another issue that required me to call Aetna. I became frustrated with Aetna’s IVR, and twice I was disconnected when being transferred to a human. So I went back to Twitter. Being at a pharmacy urgently needing medication is a time where you want instant gratification. Lo and behold, Jennifer was back on the phone with me within minutes to settle the situation and ensure that I could get the medication I needed.

Looking back on the experience, I had a tough time with Aetna over the phone, but a great time with Aetna when dealing with their social media team. This has often been the case – that it is frustrating to call customer service, but I have often received great help through social media. Why is that?

Well, brands today cannot afford for people to be saying bad things about them in online communities, and so they are investing accordingly in putting together teams that meet frustrated customers where they are. Something I have often noticed with social media customer service reps is that they often try to take the issue offline immediately by encouraging the customer to e-mail them at a certain address. This diffuses the situation in a public setting, and brings it to a private place where the customer and the brand can negotiate without others taking notice.

But people who work in social media are quite frankly savvier than others. They take pride in being part of the digital wave and in doing so, they see to it that they are quick and precise. They often need to prove the value of what they do to their superiors who have invested in more archaic forms of communication for the past few decades. Measuring ROI through social media is difficult, so those who work in the field are personally invested in being good performers.

I also believe that because most executives did not grow up with social media, but are being told of its importance, they are putting the proper amount of resources into social media because they know it’s “up and coming” and “popular.” Meanwhile, they continue to do the opposite with their call centers – make them as mean and lean as possible, which leads to longer hold times and frustration for the consumer. Even basic upgrades to caller identification would save companies and customers a lot of hassle, and yet over 60% of inbound calls to call centers today still require identification.

I know that several large companies I have spoken with have at least twenty people who work on their social media. What an astounding number. I cannot express enough how satisfying it was to have an Aetna representative essentially at my fingertips throughout the day in a critical time of need.

As a Starwood Platinum Member, I have similarly had exchanges with their social media team via Twitter to handle certain issues or room upgrade requests and again I have been amazed by the prompt responses and just flat-out results that you get when you can compartmentalize an issue and deal with it head-on with a representative from the company. When you can skip all of the bureaucracy, the voice recordings, the risk of being disconnected or having to spell out your name over the phone over and over again, things are just straight up easier.

The History of Caller ID

by Jeff Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)

“You blocked me on Facebook…and now you are going to die.” These are lyrics to a popular song called “Internet Friends.” While these lyrics are certainly hyperbolic, it is still fascinating to think about the society we live in today, where privacy seems like an afterthought. In this fictional scenario, blocking someone from seeing your personal information leads to your impending doom.

Years ago, it was a rule of thumb not to answer the phone during dinner time because presumably you were busy, but also because you assumed it was a telemarketer. Then caller ID came out, and suddenly when you got that important family phone call during dinner, you could answer the phone. That relative you don’t feel like talking to right now? Well, maybe they can wait.

The point is, caller identification is part of a growing movement where information is shared more easily and seamlessly. The invention of caller ID not only allows us to “screen” our calls before answering, but it also eliminates the 15-20 seconds we used to have at the beginning of every phone call figuring out who is calling to begin with.

What’s amazing to me is the lack of innovation in this arena in the past few decades. Seriously, what improvements have you seen to caller ID ever since it first came out? The best I have seen is that on my iPhone, I can now see a picture of the person calling me along with their name. And while a picture may mean a thousand words, it really does not offer much additional insight – like what the person has tweeted lately, or what products they are searching for on Google.

The first prototype of modern Caller ID was developed in 1971 by Theodore Paraskevakos. In patents related to those devices, he proposed to send alphanumeric information to the receiving apparatus, and this was received with great success. His invention was improved by Japanese inventor Kazuo Hashimoto, who in 1976 built a prototype of a Caller ID display device that could receive Caller ID information. The first market trial for Caller ID was conducted by BellSouth in 1984.

But since 1984, there has been very little innovation to traditional caller ID. In 1995, call waiting ID was introduced by Bellcore, but this only allowed caller ID to be transmitted while the user was simultaneously on the phone; it did not make any improvement to traditional caller ID. Rising popularity of cellular phones is actually making caller ID increasingly obsolete; most networks do not support the necessary infrastructure to support the transmission of this data. For this reason, carriers report the name as “unavailable” or “wireless caller.” In 2002, mobile users surpassed landline subscribers, and in 2014, cell phones outnumber landlines 6:1. In ten years, it is anticipated that this ratio will grow to 18:1.

We at Next Caller are working hard to finally improve caller ID once again. What kinds of improvements do you foresee in the world of caller ID? What is missing today that would be helpful to your business?

5 Reasons Why Your Customers Want to Talk to a Human

by Jeff Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)

If you’re anything like me, you don’t spend too much time looking for the answer to your question online because it is time-consuming, tedious, and sometimes painful. Oftentimes, in looking for the answer to your question online, you just come up with more questions. I will be honest – I reach for the phone almost immediately. It’s just my personality. I want immediate answers, so I can get on to the next issue or task in my life.

If you Google “customer service human,” there are a variety of different websites and articles that are devoted to teaching you the tips and tricks required to get on the phone with a human as soon as possible. Many of these links are associated with specific brands, i.e., “When X airline asks whether your reservation is entirely within the United States or Canada, just press 0.” Indeed, I am used to pressing 0 as much as I can until I get a human on the phone. Why is this?

1. Quick Resolution

This is by far the most important reason anyone wants to talk to a human. If you have reached the point where you need to pick up the phone, presumably it means one of two things: either you exhausted all other means to obtain the right answer to your question, or you altogether do not care to try any of these means and just want to talk to someone right away. It’s simply easier to sit on your couch and get an answer to your question than it is to dig around for it until you find it somewhere. In both situations, the phone IVR is destined to fail before it even gets started. 

2. It Feels Cheap

This might just be me personally, but complicated IVR systems that try to route me to the right place just seem cheap. It feels like the company is making every effort not to connect with me as the consumer, which makes me feel less valued as a customer. If a company is taking steps to avoid a conversation with me, why should I do business with them?

3. Doubt That Your IVR is Actually Helpful

Many consumers doubt that the IVR will actually make the process more efficient. What if what I need is Option 9 every time? This means I need to listen to 8 other options over and over again before selecting mine. Sure, when I get on the phone with someone, the call might be more efficient, but will that make up for the lost time listening to options over and over again? Why not just talk to someone immediately and let them transfer me to the right representative? Seems a lot easier that way.

4. They Have Multiple Questions

Some consumers are genuinely happy to engage with your IVR, but they have multiple questions that need resolution. This means that they would have to either make several phone calls and go through the IVR, or just call once and get transferred around to the various reps who could handle each concern. The latter seems a lot easier. Along those lines, many customers have very precise questions that they suspect going into the call are the types of questions that really do not fall into any sort of pre-determined category set up by the brand or company being called. In this scenario, it’s easier to just get someone on the phone.

5. Emotion is Involved

You know how this one plays out. The angry customers who yells “YES!!” when being prompted with a Yes or No question, and repeatedly dials 0 over and over again until some poor agent on the other line answers the phone. Let’s face it: emotion is involved when you feel wronged by a brand. Where logic and reason might guide you to a simple solution online (rather than taking a few deep breaths), emotion instead takes over and you do something you might regret later. I always try to kill people with kindness when I have customer service questions or complaints. That’s really the best way to get what you want. Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same way.

5 Reasons Why Your Customers Hate Calling You

by Jeff Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)

There is a negative stigma associated with calling customer service, but is it deserved? Personally, I have friends who have driven to a company’s physical location out of fear that said company might mishandle the situation over the phone. If you go on twitter and just follow the #CustomerService hashtag, chances are you see the words “sucks” or “horrible” quite frequently. Let’s face it: though customers are more likely to talk about negative experiences, such negative experiences are occurring still too often today. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the telecommunications industry, everyone seems to be moving forward. You can do just about anything on your smartphone today, but what you can’t do is make all of your customer service needs frictionless.

So, why are customers so afraid of calling customer service?

1. Waiting on hold

We live in an on-demand world. We’re spoiled. Everything is at our fingertips: TV shows on Hulu, games on your cell phone – you can even see a doctor immediately through a site called Waiting in line is a thing of the past. And now that people are so used to getting immediate results, waiting on hold when they truly need your help seems all the more irritable. It doesn’t help that hold music eerily resembles elevator music, and what happens when the customer suddenly gets disconnected after a long hold? If the customer is already angry about something, making them wait minutes at a time adds up to hours and days wasted on hold at the end of the year (by our calculation, the average person wastes more than a day per year on hold!). 

2. Your IVR is all messed up

I recently called one of my credit card providers to notify them that I would be traveling abroad. But first, I had to wait about a minute for the company CEO to apologize to me about the recent hacking at Target of sensitive credit card information, something that was irrelevant to me specifically. There was no way to dial out of this lecture, so I had to sit patiently before dialing “0” over and over again so that I could talk to a human. And that is precisely the issue – you invest in setting up an IVR that customers are ready to bypass before even listening. Websites like are designed to teach consumers the easiest and fastest way to reach a human for your company. That means the customer calls you with a predetermined plan for what to do once they get through – regardless of the protocol you have set up on the other end of the line to help streamline the process.

3. Spelling information over the phone

I have wondered why when I call airlines with questions, why I must have my confirmation code handy in order to be helped. Can’t they look me up by name? The same goes for hotels and a host of other brands. There is nothing more infantilizing than spelling your name over the phone. With the last name “Kirchick,” I have had to do this hundreds of times. And what happens when you get to a letter in the alphabet that is hard to come up with a generic word for? “C” as in “cat”…but what bout “I”? At Next Caller, we say “P” as in “pterodactyl” to poke fun at this archaic method of relaying information. The telephone was meant for conversation, not relaying bits of data. And your customers are calling you to ask questions, not answer them. I literally just got off a customer service call with Microsoft in which I spent thirty minutes spelling letters of product keys, email addresses, and physical addresses to a representative in India who repeatedly confused the letter “C” with the letter “T.” All of this for nothing, too. Which leads to the next problem…

4. An unhelpful agent

Part of the negative stigma associated with call centers is the reality that many of them are outsourced to other countries. This oftentimes leads to the feeling that the employee is not truly a part of the company, more of a mercenary working on behalf of whomever the customer is calling. What it also means is that the agent might not speak perfect English. Not only does this lead us back to problem 3 above, but it also leads to common misunderstandings over the phone. This certainly is just as likely to happen with any agent, not just those for whom English is a second language. Customers call customer service for resolution, and if their inquiry is unresolved after speaking with the first agent, this just adds to the frustration of the entire experience.

5. Being transferred to another agent

So what happens when the first agent can’t help you? You get transferred to a second agent. Many things can happen from here, but the most frustrating is that you suddenly get disconnected. Or, potentially even worse, the next agent knows nothing about why you are calling, and so now you are starting from scratch. I vividly remember last year trying to claim frequent flier miles through my preferred airline for a flight I had with one of their partners. Both companies insisted I needed to call the other airline in order to be serviced, and maintained that they would stay on the line when transferring me to resolve the issue together over the phone. And yet, every time these alleged “three-party” encounters were set to occur, the airline I had initially called would always hang up when transferring my call…leaving me right back where I started. Statistically speaking, first-call resolution is important to the consumer. So, it is important to make sure you are working to get it right the first time.