How IVR can still become a self-service success with your customers

21st Jul 2014

Telephone self-service has been around for decades, with interactive voice response (IVR) units becoming widely used during the 70s. But it’s fair to say that in that time it hasn’t been one of the most popular inventions.

In fact, in the words of Michael Maoz, research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner Research: “IVR ranks with taxation as one of the most disliked features ever created.”

This is a pity, as IVR is a real cost-saver for businesses - research by ContactBabel estimates that the average cost of a telephony IVR self-service session is 65p, compared to £3.87 for a live agent call, £3.70 for an agent-handled email and £3.00 for a web chat session.

So, can businesses improve IVR’s image? Can they convince customers that it can provide a positive experience? With best practices coming to the fore, and a new generation of IVR technology coming on stream, there is hope yet that this self-service technology can be a help rather than a hindrance.

Different flavours

Traditionally found in high-volume environments where saving a few seconds from each call or reducing misrouting can translate into huge savings, IVR is most commonly found in industries such as financial services, telecoms and utilities. Its main functions are to route calls to the right person/department; to identify who is calling; to segment customers according to importance; or to entirely replace the human agent with a totally automated interaction.

This last option – the full self-service solution via telephony – is offered by only a relatively small proportion of organisations, and it’s generally accepted by even those that do offer it, that most calls are not suitable for complete automation.

Until recently IVR came in two flavours – the traditional dual tone, multiple frequency (DTMF), which provides information in a numerical format, with the customer using the phone keypad; and the more recent addition of automated speech recognition (ASR), which allows customers to speak their requirements to the system.

According to the ‘The Inner Circle Guide to Self-Service’, only around a fifth of full voice self-service interactions are handled through ASR IVR, with these applications most commonly found in larger contact centres as they require more resources to implement and support them.

However, a new type of application is now emerging, called visual IVR. This graphical contact routing approach is gradually gaining popularity around the globe, and the expectation is that visual IVR will be on the agenda for most major organisations over the next year. Maoz, for one, believes that it is an “exciting revolution” for the IVR space.

“Rather than listen on a ‘phone’ for a bunch of options, a menu is displayed on your Samsung/iPhone with the menu choices,” he explains. “No more trying to recall Press 4 now, or was that 5? Instead you press a menu item and it connects you with the person for a call or chat, or supplies more information so that you can further refine your inquiry. This could revolutionise IVR!”

IVR challenges

Nonetheless, even visual IVR must overcome the a serious obstacle that is common to IVR. 

“It’s easy to create very bad IVRs,” warns Helen Casewell, UX research manager at VoxGen. “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 is still the main contact channel for the majority of companies. This means that everything from the design of your IVR, to the persona and voice of the IVR and the on-hold experience, will say something about your brand. If that experience is negative, callers come away with a negative perception of not only their task at hand, but with the company as a whole.”

She continues: “There are plenty of examples out there of really badly designed IVRs, where callers get lost in a sea of automated options and then end up waiting in a queue for 30 minutes to be told (repeatedly!) that their call is important. It’s no wonder then that IVRs often get a bad press but, if designed well, with a real understanding of user needs and tasks, IVRs can provide a quick and efficient way for callers to complete their tasks.”

Indeed, IVR systems done well can be quick, efficient and easy to use for customers. For instance, a well-designed payment application in an IVR allows customers to quickly make a payment without the need for speaking to an agent or waiting on-hold. No apps to install, no laptops to boot up. Just a quick call to an IVR with an SMS confirmation that the payment has been made.

Furthermore, IVRs can save companies money.

Casewell continues: “Agent resource costs money and IVR self-service offers a real opportunity for decreasing calls into the contact centre and reducing that cost. Customers really don’t mind using IVRs if they are quick and easy to use and used for the right tasks. They really dislike bad IVRs and this is where they become counterproductive and business benefits are compromised.”

Doing IVR well

So how can you ensure that your IVR is properly designed and is integrated into your wider service infrastructure?

First of all, it’s important to ensure that the IVR is being used in the right way, and for the right tasks.

“The IVR shouldn’t be used for lengthy marketing messages,” notes Casewell. “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.”

For customers to be motivated to use IVR, there must be something in it for them, and the self-service application must be designed, maintained and promoted to encourage them to continue using it.

The Inner Circle Guide notes: “Simply making IVR self-service available without too much thought or effort will result in perhaps fewer than 20% of appropriate calls being completed without human interaction. Designing the IVR self-service experience with customers’ needs in mind, marketing it as an aid for customers, rewarding the customer for using it and tuning the application to make it even better can mean up to 90% of relevant calls are dealt with automatically: a massive cost saving, an improvement in the customer service experience and a boost for the company’s reputation with its customers.”

Some general recommendations for DTMF IVR implementation include:

  • Offer ‘zero out’ capability so that the caller can speak to an agent at any time.
  • Provide professional voice prompts
  • Overly-complex and long-winded DTMF IVR menus are a frequent source of irritation to customers, so limit the number of choices per menu: for example, no more than three or four per level and no more than two or three levels.
  • Offer the most popular option first.
  • Give customers more than one chance to select an option.
  • If appropriate, let the caller know where they are in the queue and update them at regular intervals.
  • Make sure that the agent has access to any information entered by the caller, as repetition of this information is extremely frustrating.

In order to get the most from your IVR, it is also important to integrate it with other channels. A key challenge faced by many companies is integrating the IVR with other self-service tools. Channels are still often viewed in isolation of eachother, resulting in clunky, inconsistent self-service experiences. Moving away from these silos requires a shift in organisational structure and process.

“Make sure the IVR isn’t forgotten about when discussing your multichannel self-service strategy,” says Casewell. “Consider ways of providing links from your website or mobile to the voice channel. For example, if someone is in the middle of paying their bill online and they experience problems, you could offer click to call, taking them directly to a billing agent rather than transferring them to the top of the IVR. If they’ve already been through Identification and Verification (ID&V), pass that ID&V information to the agent or IVR system so that the customer doesn’t have to repeat this security verification again.”

Integration and assessment

The integration of IVR with other channels such as web, mobile apps and SMS also provides opportunities to improve the customer experience by using data to offer more personalised and predictive interactions.

“The voice channel is still high on the list of preferred channels for customers, but it’s also important to understand how voice fits in with other channels that customers may want to use,” continues Casewell. “Imagine a scenario where a customer gets a quote online for renewing their car insurance and receives an email with details of the renewal. The next day they want to review these details. They open the email from their smartphone, click to review the quote and the renewal details are displayed. They have a question about coverage of the insurance and call the insurance company from their landline at work as they’re worried about costs of the call from a mobile.”

“When they reach the IVR, it recognises that they’re in the renewal process and have received a quote. At the very start of the IVR interaction, the customer is offered an option to transfer directly to a renewal agent. They’re transferred to the agent who has all the customer details in front of them. The agent answers the question and completes the sale, sending email confirmation of the insurance purchase. In this scenario, the IVR recognises the context and history of the caller from other channels and is able to offer a personalised and relevant experience.”

It’s also useful to ensure you have a clear picture of how successful your IVR capability is proving to be. A review of the ongoing success of IVR can be conducted in two ways: by measuring the completion rate, which monitors how many customers successfully interact without having to zero out to an agent, and/or measuring the play rate, which monitors the overall proportion of customers that try to use IVR.

So, with all of these tips taken on board, is it possible that IVR can shake off its negative image?

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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