Service surprise: Why IVR could be experiencing an unlikely resurgence

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Chris Ward
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Ask any member of the British public their opinion about automated telephone systems, and you can expect an unparalleled, expletive-riddled vitriol in response.

Such is the distaste for Interactive Voice Response (IVR) that one man has made it his mission to rid the country of recorded phone menus, creating a website to provide the relevant dialling shortcuts for some of the UK’s leading organisations’ phone systems.

Nigel Clarke, the man behind the shortcuts, claims that HMRC’s IVR consists of 74 menu options across 6 different levels and can take up to six minutes to navigate. Direct Line’s includes over 100 options. In such a climate, it seems perverse to suggest that the UK needs more automated telephony. Yet as Clarke himself states, IVR – as a technology – is not always the root of the problem.  

Omnichannel trends       

Public opinion may veer towards ridding customer service of IVR, but current customer experience trends actually suggest an alternative solution is needed.

Firstly, our penchant for channel-hopping during a transaction with a brand has reached fever pitch. 71% of customer journeys begin online and yet just 42% typically buy via the web, while 18% start with a visit to a shop but 31% end up purchasing in store.

In a typical customer buying journey you can expect as many as four different channels to be incorporated in the research stage alone. If this suggests channel fatigue for the customer, think again.

These trends are being driven by our increasing need for instant gratification. In the 2015 Forrester report, ‘Channel Management: Core to your Customer Service Strategyit was found that speed is the most important factor in our shopping decisions. 55% of people will abandon online purchases if they can’t find answers to their questions quickly enough. For 77%, time is the most important factor in a company providing good service.

What does this mean for IVR?

Forrester’s stats also state that when choosing a channel for when complex customer service queries arise, traditional methods reign supreme. Whilst 65% of us consider turning to live chat and 43% to Twitter, 83% will pick up the telephone.

In an environment where speed of response is key and the phone is still a go-to channel, it stands to reason that brands must continue to develop their IVR options to meet demand. The question is – how to do it in a way that provides a more seamless, human experience?

Designing for the customer   

Since the 1970s, cost-saving benefits have often driven a brand’s decision to use IVR. However, as Helen Casewell, UX research manager at VoxGen states, this premise no longer washes in the age of the customer.  

“It’s easy to create very bad IVRs. Creating great IVR experiences requires planning and time, and resource and budget needs to be put aside for that. A user-centred design approach is needed, one that involves identifying the right tasks to be supported by the IVR and a process of design and evaluation to ensure users are offered the best experience possible.

“The IVR shouldn’t be used for lengthy marketing messages. And it isn’t always the place for automating lengthy and complex tasks. Other channels may be better suited or maybe callers just want to be able to speak to someone. It’s also key that the IVR really reflects and supports user needs, expectations and behaviours. This is often where IVRs fall down.”

To do this, understanding customer journeys has become more and more critical. “It’s not enough to optimise one particular touchpoint,” says Art Schoeller, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, in a recent webinar on the topic. 

“Silos need to be broken down and the best practice of a customer experience team is to engage the web portal, mobile teams, etc, so we don’t drop the context and are able to provide a more seamless journey.”

Forrester IVR
Source: Forrester Research

Design once, deploy many

According to Chris Caile, senior marketing manager at Nuance Communications, being omnichannel means having the technical capability to effortlessly put yourself wherever the customer is.   

“This is the idea that people are investing time in each individual channel or silo separately,” he states. “They build out the IVR solution, they build out their website, mobile etc. Moving forwards we expect to see companies build out one core engine that does all the intelligence work, manages all the languages that they can use for one channel.

“It’s about design once, deploy many. We talk about Facebook, Twitter, Line – I didn’t even know what Line was! Likewise, we don’t know what the next channel will be 2-3 years from now, so we have to ensure we build the right engine to account for those new channels in the future.”

The way we’ve managed IVR historically has done a disservice to the technology, to consumers and the enterprises they’re serving.

By doing this, companies are able to focus more time on establishing where IVR fits in different customer journeys, and whether the IVR itself can be tailored accordingly.

“The way we’ve managed this resource historically has done a disservice to the technology, to consumers and the enterprises they’re serving,” says Schoeller. “Sometimes I see IVRs out there managed in the ‘set it and forget it’ mode. 40% automation, and then we move our investment dollars somewhere else. There’s a reasonable percentage of older IVRs that create dead-ends in the menus, and create complexity. But there’s an opportunity here.

“Managing the customer journey across touchpoints, preserving the contextual information and putting in programming and orchestration capabilities that allow us to design customer journeys within a common environment that makes decisions based on the contextual data and reinform the touchpoints so we can personalise them.”

Sophisticated automation

One example Schoeller gives is that of an airline, when a flight has been cancelled. He believes that in the near future, IVR should be able to take the knowledge of passengers’ phone numbers and apply it to the knowledge of events such as cancelled flights, so the automated messaging can be changed and tailored more to the caller’s predicament.

Personalisation is expected play a key role in future IVRs, something Caile says should be about “taking the essense of Starbucks, and applying it to IVR”.

To deliver on both the design and personalisation mandate, it is understandable that many IVR specialists are turning to artificial intelligence to breathe new life into what is often dismissed as a somewhat antiquated customer service system.

In order to get the most from your IVR, it’s essential that the experience is usable, personalised and integrated with other channels.

For instance, an artificial intelligence sat behind the IVR can map calls and anticipate the path of a customer based on their response, rather than simply offering up a series of menus. The key at this point in time is to always offer the customer the get-out clause of being put into line for a human support agent, rather than relying on the AI itself.  

How can we get artificial intelligence and the system learning about what’s going on, what the consumer is doing, what they’re doing, what they’re saying, and then feed that back into the system and have that work across channels?” asks Caile.

“There’s general reporting, but as people say things, use new words, new vocabulary, we don’t want humans analysing that data manually. We want AI to take effect and plough that back into the engine we’ve already talked about.”

Voice biometrics are also becoming part of the IVR service mix, but as the recent story of HSBC’s voice ID authentication service being hacked by a BBC reporter and his twin proves, any new technology must not distract from the need to retain trust from customers.

However, if security issues are ironed out, biometrics also offer the potential to deliver on the customer’s need for effortless service.

 “People want to authenticate themselves, even within the one company,” Caile adds. “Sometimes you can use your mobile phone app, use your thumbprint, and then you have to make a call out of your app. It’s not seamless. You want to be able to authenticate once and then move seamlessly.

“It’s no good if you’re on the web and then have to reauthenticate. We want the ability to move freely between channels and have the context go with us. We don’t want agents asking us our address, our zip code. That’s where we want IVR to work in tandem with other channels, so the agent is ready with all of that information.       

And as Casewell concludes: “Great IVR experiences are definitely possible, and can be quicker and easier than other channels for certain tasks. But in order to get the most from your IVR, it’s essential that the experience is usable, personalised and integrated with other channels. Do that and you’ll soon reap the benefits for your customers and your brand.”

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