Q: What should we consider before adding an automated phone receptionist system?

A: Many organizations, both consumer-facing and business-to-business, implement call redirect systems to theoretically improve customer access to the "right" person or department as quickly as possible. They also may see them as ways to reduce the number of operators necessary to take calls for organizations that field a lot of inquiries, such as medical clinics and large retail firms.

As with any communication, both the means of interaction and the essence of the customer's needs/perspective should be central to considering any technology that becomes a customer touch point that can influence their overall experience. Unfortunately, this aspect of the technology adoption often appears to have been forgotten.

Consider a recent concern from a reader regarding her issues with the automation system at a prominent health care organization:

"Many times, the options are not what I'm seeking or the 'machine' speaks too fast. … Every staff member encountered is excellent, in my experience. It's just too hard to access them."

Particularly in health care, where many patients may be older, organizations must take into consideration challenges with technology. Further, offering an immediate option for instructions in Spanish does not help anyone whose first language is something other than English or Spanish.

Consider also that more sophisticated and tech-savvy callers will attempt to bypass the system almost immediately by pressing "0" or saying, "Representative." This means that an increased percentage of callers likely will be less skilled at wading through the electronic process.

To address these issues, consider the various experiences and backgrounds of those who will be faced with your system. When possible, do focus groups and experience research to test the usability of the system for subgroups to learn where each has issues, and then thoughtfully consider how you might adjust.

For instance, you may publish a specific number for those who fall into one or more of the groups facing unique challenges. This might take the form of a line for those with a hearing impairment, or by specific language. This self-selection allows you to still gain value from the system, but provides appropriate attention to special audiences.

Mike Porter, EdD, is a faculty member in the Marketing Department at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.