Can evil automated switchboards really be improved?

The idea with these wireless systems is to eliminate the press-1-press-2 nonsense

The automated switchboard, that most satanic of corporate innovations, isn't going away even though the vast majority of consumers despise it.

In fact, the technology may play an even greater role in your life by migrating to your cellphone.

First, a little glossary. The business world refers to existing automated phone systems as "interactive voice response" technology, or IVR for short. These are the phone trees where you have to press 1 for this and press 2 for that.

The question for businesses is how to make such systems more compatible with a world of wireless devices. Their answer: new technology called "visual IVR."

"Self-service is the future," said Theresa Szczurek, chief executive of software developer Radish Systems in Boulder, Colo. "Visual IVR will be a big part of that."

The idea with these wireless systems is to eliminate the press-1-press-2 nonsense and allow cellphone users to navigate customer service with a few finger taps, entering relevant data as they go.

In theory, this could make for a faster and more efficient experience. Or it could just be a slicker way of making sure you still never get close to a service rep.

"Technology is always going to be cheaper than people," said David Bunch, a marketing professor at UC Davis. "That won't change."

He said the best that consumers can hope for is automation that operates with the same responsiveness — and attractiveness — as the sci-fi, super-smart operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson in the 2013 movie "Her."

"Would you prefer to speak with Scarlett Johansson?" Bunch asked. "I'd prefer to speak with Scarlett Johansson."

I was curious about advances in robot phone systems after recently struggling to speak with a real person at Medco, the company that runs the Express Scripts online pharmacy.

It took me six calls to untangle a problem with my prescriptions. Each time I called, I had to provide my phone number, birth date, name and insurance status before the robot would let me get to a living, breathing person.

Six calls. Six repetitions of personal information. And then I'd have to go through it all again each time a rep in some call center came on the line.

Insanity.

No, I take that back. I know perfectly well why Medco and other companies make reaching a person so unpleasant. They want to discourage such behavior on the part of consumers.

We housebreak dogs pretty much the same way.

Automated phone systems may be perfectly fine for simple tasks, such as checking the balance of a bank account or whether a flight is on time.

It's when they serve as gateways — or barriers — to reaching a service agent that many people blow a fuse.

A 2011 study by a New York University researcher found that 83% of consumers feel these systems "provide either no benefit at all or only a cost-savings benefit to the company."

About two-thirds of consumers surveyed said they preferred speaking to a real person over any other service option.

Consumers might as well accept automated systems, because they're here to stay, said Greg Pal, vice president of marketing and strategy for Nuance Communications in Burlington, Mass. But he said new technology will make the experience kinder and gentler.

Along with cellphone-based systems that boost online interaction, Pal said, traditional phone systems will become more intuitive and will allow people to phrase issues in their own words, rather than merely respond to a machine's prompts.

"Customers want to accomplish their tasks and do it with the least effort possible," he said. "The question of whether it's automated or not is secondary."

Radish's cellphone system is intended to reduce customer aggravation by providing faster access to information without the need for a service rep, as well as speedy connections to hotels, retailers and other companies.

"We see traditional IVRs being transformed into next-generation systems like this," Szczurek said.

A Toronto company called Fonolo believes there will always be a role for call centers and service reps.

Using its wireless system, a customer would use his or her cellphone to connect with a company and enter pertinent data, such as an account or order number. A company rep then would call as soon as possible.

"This eliminates two of the biggest frustrations — navigating the phone tree and waiting on hold," said Shai Berger, Fonolo's CEO.

"The touchtone phone was never intended to be used as a navigation device," he said. "That's a big part of the problem."

Be that as it may, I'm with Bunch, the marketing professor. Until robot phone systems are as enticing as Scarlett Johansson, they'll be perceived as a poor substitute for speaking with a real person.

So here's a tip the next time you find yourself stuck on hold.

Go to a website called OnHoldWith.com, which was co-created by Fonolo's Berger. It provides a live Twitter feed of people languishing on hold.

I found it oddly comforting to peruse the site's tweets and share other people's misery. Being ignored and treated like dirt by a big company is usually a private hassle.

OnHoldWith.com reminds you that we're all in this together — and that there are ways to make your voice heard.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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