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Apples and LIMEs.

It's amazing how simple things can turn customer service into customer annoyance.  All of us are familiar with interactive voice response (IVR) systems - you know those glorified answering machines that you get when you call a customer care line.  "Please press 1 for billing information…", "please press 2 for information on services", "please press 3 to be directed into the endless void, where you will wait an eternity to speak with an underpaid and generally unhelpful human being".  They are overall annoyances, and even more annoying are the voices that babble out your choices for customer frustration…um, I mean customer service.

Recently, I had an interaction with one of these systems which changed my view of them entirely.  I had a problem with a top-up transaction, and I had to call LIME customer care.  Upon dialing 100 I was slightly surprised by the voice that greeted me.  The first thing that stood out was that it was a male voice - atypical for IVRs.  Another thing which struck me was how natural this voice sounded - it wasn't your usual bland, deadpan, even toned zombie voice.  Furthermore, "he" was conversational, even assertive, and greeted me with the correct time of day (morning at the time).  This voice had personality, and manners!  In fact, I think "he" deserves a name, so let's call him LIME Man.

After selecting the option to speak with a  customer care agent, LIME Man continued as if having a conversation: "Now if this is about an iPhone, press 1, for any other type of phone, press 2".  I pressed 2 and then he said quite simply: "And, one last thing, is this a business phone?  Just press 1 for yes, and 2 for no".  Isn't LIME Man just straightforward and helpful?  After I answered, he says: "Ok, please wait while I transfer you to a customer service agent".  This may not sound very exciting reading it here, but it was a pleasant experience.  Notice how the transitions flowed smoothly? I was actually eager to press a number to see what he would say next.

So of course I had to call back and run some more tests on the system.  The first menu had 4 options, and the third and 4th are good examples of what I mean when I say the system is conversational.  These options read like this: "If you are having any problems using your handset, please press 3 and I can get you tech support; and for anything else press 4".  If you sit on the line, LIME Man says "please make a choice" and then repeats the options.  If you don't make a choice, he says "sorry I'm having so many problems, let me transfer you to a customer care agent".  Other cheeky IVRs would simply say "I did not get a response, good bye", leaving you feeling rejected and outsmarted by a silly computer.  But not so with LIME Man!  He apologizes, even though you may be pressing the wrong numbers, or even if you are an idiot who is just playing with the IVR.  This is a truly user friendly system.

So having realized that I wrote four entire paragraphs about an automated computer system, I thought there must be some important nugget in the experience that tugged at something inside me.  Then it occurred to me that the IVR isn't the real story here.  Neither is customer service.  It is the fact that someone put a lot of thought into something that is usually ignored, taken for granted, and served up as is.  Someone made the mundane into something interesting.  And so begins my justification of this extravagance of words about an IVR.

No one expects an IVR to be user friendly; in fact some may argue that it's mere existence is user friendly enough - it's quicker and easier than having to wait for an operator to transfer you.  Back when they were invented, IVRs were innovative.  Now they are just run of the mill - status quo.  That someone saw an opportunity to take something that is usually ignored, and make it get noticed and appreciated is truly amazing.

Apple did the same thing with the consumer electronics industry.  Twice they transformed the personal computer industry: first in the 80s by making computers preassembled, ready to use devices, when other manufactures sold computers as kits for electronics engineers to assemble, and programmers to write code for.  They changed the computer industry again at the turn of the century by making computers sexy, when everyone else was selling beige boxes.  

Then Apple set their sights on the smartphone industry, causing a few waves with the iPhone in 2007.  The iPhone was impressive, but no one expected them to dethrone the likes of Nokia and RIM.  Then the did.  They made smartphones as fun as they were functional, and then empowered developers to do virtually anything with these devices.  In just five years, Apple became the undisputed heavyweight of the smartphone industry, reigning from atop their mountain of cash. 

While everyone was busy catching up with the iPhone, Apple was lining up a hat trick.  The iPad was not the the first tablet ever.  But can you name another that predated it?  Apple made the iPad the only tablet that mattered through one fundamental change - making it simple to use your fingers to control it.  That minor change, coupled with the already hugely successful iPhone software platform made it an immediate hit.

In every case, Apple's success came from recognizing opportunities for improvement that no one else saw.  They took things which were status quo, imagined them better, and gave them to the world.  LIME has done the same with their brand new IVR - see, I got back on topic.

While this cool new IVR probably won't help LIME dethrone Big Red, it's certainly refreshing to see that the company is learning to pay attention to details.  They previously did this when they introduced affordable data plans, and full support for data enabled devices.  In doing so, they quietly secured a solid revenue stream with the road warriors, and the tech savvy crowd.

If LIME can do for other services what they have done for their IVR, they may yet be able to transform their sour image with consumers, into the sweet love affair that everyone has with candied Apple.  So to LIME I say: keep sweating the small stuff!
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