Elevating IVR: Stop the Hatred for Automation

Contributor:  Greg Levine
Posted:  10/15/2010  12:00:00 AM EDT
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IVR.

In many customers’ minds, this three-letter acronym is a four-letter word. It’s not uncommon for callers to mutter a diverse range of other forbidden words whenever interacting – or trying to interact – with a contact center’s IVR system.

But IVR is not deserving of such hatred. IVR systems are not inherently flawed or evil, nor are the companies that use an IVR to front-end their contact centers. The reason why the general public’s perception of IVR is so negative is that so few of the systems that the public has encountered have been designed properly by the humans behind the scene. The technology itself has tons of potential; it’s what’s dumped into it by organizations overly eager to enjoy the cost-saving benefits of phone-based self-service that makes the machines such monsters.

Not all IVR systems in existence today are so beastly. Some, in fact, not only play nice with customers, they delight them and keep them coming back for more. So how have the owners of these much-maligned systems succeeded in getting callers to drop their pitchforks and torches and embrace IVR?

By adopting the following key practices, all of which I stole from a host of IVR experts and now pass off as my own:

Adhere to the fundamentals of IVR menu design. Most of what irritates and confounds customers with regard to IVR can be easily avoided. Callers often opt out of the system or hang up due to too many menu choices, confusing phrasing/commands, and fear of dying alone in IVR hell.

Here are a handful of essential menu features and functions common to the best-designed IVR applications:

• No more than four or five menu options

• The ability to easily skip ahead to desired menu choices (e.g., having the system recognize that the customer pressed “3” or said what they wanted before the system presented such options)

• Use of the same clear, professional recorded voice throughout the IVR

• (For touchtone systems specifically) Giving a description of an action/option prior to telling the caller what key to press for that action/option (e.g., “To check your balance without bothering one of our expensive agents, press ‘1’”; NOT “Press ‘1’ to check your balance without bothering one of our expensive agents.”) 

• The ability to opt out to and curse directly at a live agent at any time

Invest in advanced speech recognition. In leading contact centers, traditional touchtone IVR systems are being replaced by sleeker and sexier speech-enabled solutions. While you may not want to listen to a writer who thinks that IVR can be sleek or sexy, you should, as today’s advanced speech recognition (ASR) solutions have helped many customer care organizations vastly improve self-service, and, consequently, reduce the number of death threats their IVR system receives each day.  

Powered by natural language processing, ASR systems provide a much more personalized and human experience than traditional touchtone ever could. Traditional touchtone is like interacting with Dan Rathers, while ASR is like talking to Oprah.

Even more importantly, ASR-driven IVR systems enable contact centers to vastly reduce the number of steps callers must take to get what they need. Customers can cut through unnecessary menu options by saying exactly what they want (e.g., “I would like the address of your call center so that I can punch the last agent I spoke to in the face”). 

Use CTI to ensure smooth, smart transfers. Even if your IVR system is perfectly designed and features the universally appealing voice of James Earl Jones, many callers will still want to – or need to – speak to a live agent featuring the universally less-appealing voice of a live agent. And when this happens, what’s universally aggravating to callers is – after providing the IVR with their name, account number, social security number, height, weight and blood type – having to repeat the very same information to the agent to whom their call is transferred.

To avoid such enraging redundancy – and to shorten call lengths/reduce costs – leading contact centers incorporate CTI (computer telephony integration) technology into their IVR system. These applications integrate the voice and data portions of the call, then, with the help of magic fairies, deliver that information directly to the desktop of the agent handling the call. With today’s technologies, it’s really quite simple (though, granted, not always cheap), and the impact on the customer experience is immense. Rather than the caller starting off their live-agent interaction with a loud sigh or groan, they start off with the feeling that the company might actually have a soul.

Regularly test and monitor the system. Top contact centers keep a close eye on IVR function and callers’ interactions with the system to ensure optimum functionality and customer experiences. 

One essential practice is load-testing any new IVR system prior to making it “open for business”. This involves duplicating actual call volumes and pinpointing any system snags, glitches or outright errors that could jam up the system and drive callers nuts.

Once the IVR system is up and running, leading contact centers frequently test it by “playing customer” – calling the center just as a customer would, then evaluating things like menu logic and speech recognition performance, as well as hold times and call-routing precision after opting out of the IVR.

Some contact centers have invested in solutions that automate the IVR-testing process. These potent diagnostic tools are able to dial in and navigate through an interactive voice transaction just as a real caller would – except with far less swearing – and can track and report on key quality and efficiency issues. Many other centers gain the same IVR-testing power by contracting with a third-party vendor that specializes in testing self-service systems.

Internal IVR testing alone is insufficient to ensure optimal customer experiences with the IVR. The best contact centers extend their call monitoring process to the self-service side. Quality specialists listen to live or recorded customer-IVR interactions and evaluate how easy it is for customers to navigate the system and complete transactions without agent assistance, as well as how effectively the IVR routes each call when a live agent is requested or required.

Today’s advanced quality monitoring systems can be programmed to alert QA staff whenever a caller gets entangled in the IVR or seems to get confused during the transaction. Such alerts enable the specialist – after having a laugh with his peers over the customer’s audible expletives – to fix any system glitches and perhaps contact the customer directly to repair the damaged relationship.

Greg Levine Contributor:   Greg Levine


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