You probably haven’t heard of IVR systems I hadn’t until now - but you’ve certainly experienced them. It stands for ‘interactive voice response’ and usually tells you to press 1 for accounts, press 2 for reception, 3 for push off. It then puts you in a queue while telling you “your call is important to us”. Not a human within earshot.

Well, PayPoint’s IVR system certainly ticked off regular correspondent Hitendra, who runs a Costcutter in Romford, Essex. He had a moan about PP’s 0845 number. Too many options.

He did a Virgin mobile top-up not long ago. A genuine transaction, he says, but the customer brought the voucher back saying it wasn’t working. He gave her the money back (it was a fiver). He rang PP the next day but there was no ‘invalid voucher’ option on PP’s IVR system. He got fed up holding on.

He eventually left a message on the Wednesday and got a call back on the Sunday from PP, saying he had to report the problem within 24 hours. “I said to him, you are joking. You know what? Keep the money.”

And to me, Hitendra says: “This isn’t the way to treat customers. It’s a very bad service.”

I did have a go myself and found that if I pressed 3 for ‘terminal issues’ I got two more options. Choosing ‘technical issues’ I got six more options. I picked the one I thought was right and got two more options. I picked one of those and then got put on hold owing to a heavy number of calls. Whew.

I put all this, as usual, to Peter Brooker, head of comms at PP. He says: “We listen to what retailers tell us about the Contact Centre and introduce improvements all the time. Hitendra’s experience was not acceptable and we introduced a new process less than two weeks afterwards so that we now set ourselves a maximum time to reply of 48 hours. We are currently returning more than 75% of calls within 24 hours. We have a new, simpler IVR system in test right now, which we expect to go live in a few weeks.”

He adds: “No one likes IVR systems, but they really help organisations like ours provide a better service because it means that the operator already knows broadly what your call is about and the call is routed to someone with specialist knowledge of that product area. However, we have to balance that with the number of options we can expect callers to plough through.

“To take Hitendra’s example, to drill down to an ‘invalid voucher’ option would have meant going through about eight layers of options (or have incredibly long lists of options), which would be unacceptable. Four options is about the most anyone will put up with. The facility to leave a message kicks in after waiting 15 seconds after the final option.”

And finally, he advises: “With regards to the Virgin voucher issue, the process has always been that retailers refer the customer to the network operator before giving a refund to make sure the voucher is valid. If it is, most retailers opt to re-sell vouchers from the major networks.”