The Love-Hate Relationship: Transforming the Customer Experience with IVR Best Practices

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More and more, there are opportunities for people to interact with computers by simply speaking. Today, it’s possible to dictate written documents, turn spoken words into text messages, and even speak to command our smartphones. Despite these popular technological advances, consumer sentiment still remains overwhelmingly negative toward Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems—those automated service systems that answer the phone for many companies. In fact, there is a general dissatisfaction and a largely negative perception of IVR systems, especially when it comes to actual usability and getting things done.

Most callers become frustrated when an IVR system doesn’t offer the right menu options, forces callers to listen to marketing messages, or takes too long to navigate through the menus. As a result, they quickly switch their goal from trying to get information from the system, to trying to reach a service associate. This reaction typically forces the caller to wait longer on hold and pushes them over the edge into the poor customer experience that we have all learned to tolerate.

An increasing number of customer service departments understand how frustrating this process can be and are making improvements to deliver superior automated customer service experiences. Now, a number of IVR systems use highly sophisticated voice recognition technology with impressive accuracy even in noisy environments or over a weak cellular connection. Many companies have improved the call flow designs, offering self service first, and adding marketing only where appropriate. And, many systems today provide the universal option to press zero and transfer to an associate at any time. However, even with these recent improvements, customers still have a psychological barrier when it comes to talking to a machine rather than a person. So, why do customers love to hate IVR systems? In an attempt to help companies engineer superior IVR systems, eLoyalty decided to study this issue and launch an in-depth survey to explore customers’ attitudes towards IVRs.

Studying Customer Sentiment

We wanted to conduct a deep-dive discovery into how people feel about IVRs and explore the good, the bad, and the ugly, so our research team, headed by Georgios Tserdanelis, PhD, compiled a list of questions to determine not only what people dislike about these systems, but also what it is they really like about them as well.

Top Reasons Why Users Dislike Automated Systems Answering Their Call

Please list the top three reasons why you do not like Automated Systems answering your call when you contact a business.

The study showed a significant portion of participants reporting basic IVR interaction challenges that can easily be overcome with the advanced IVR design principles, so this evidence should act as a call to action for business leaders to evaluate their IVR system for outdated technologies and practices that can amplify customer frustration.

The issues revealed in this survey question can be directly linked to three common IVR offenders. Here are some ways to overcome them:
  • Audio prompting: Audio prompting presents menus in a linear fashion, but there are a maximum number of prompts that callers are willing to listen to before they hit a point of frustration and forget the options offered. This intrinsic limitation means menu options should be clear, concise, quick, and avoid unnecessary messages before the menu options. Our rule of thumb is this: The time span between the start of the Welcome message and the end of the last main menu prompt should not exceed 30 seconds.
  • Upfront messages: Lengthy upfront messages, including marketing messages or website addresses, cause callers to tune out and stop listening to the prompts. The best IVRs will say only what the service associate would say when answering a call. These messages should be avoided: “Thank you for calling XYZ. Did you know you can get faster responses on our website? Please listen carefully to the following options.”
  • Speech recognition: The quality of the system’s speech recognition depends on the type of Automated Speech Recognition (ASR) engine and the grammar development behind the speech engine.

Top Reasons Why Users Believe the Automated System is Helpful

Please list the top three reasons why you believe the automated system is helpful.

In the previous question, 24 percent of participants complained about the time it takes to navigate through an automated system, but here 19 percent of participants acknowledge that the automated system saves time—proving their love-hate sentiment toward IVRs. So, why the contradiction? Perhaps the famous fable of the blind men describing an elephant can help explain this phenomenon. If you haven’t heard the story, blind men will describe an elephant differently depending on which part of the animal they touch.

Also interesting to note is that 16 percent of customers acknowledge the cost savings that IVRs deliver to companies as a positive attribute of the system. This indicates an overall acceptance and expectation to more frequently encounter IVRs and interact with non-human systems in today’s cost-focused, global economy. The key takeaway here is that while customers love to hate IVRs, they understand why businesses use them. So, it truly is their experience within the IVR system that really turns customers off. Business leaders should continue to leverage IVRs for the cost efficiencies but invest in upgrades that make them customer centric rather than business centric. Plus, these investments both lower costs and increase customer satisfaction; it should never be one or the other.”

How Users Prefer to Interact with Automated Systems

Do you prefer talking to the system (speech input) or using the telephone keypad for input (touch tone input)?

An overwhelming 57 percent of customers prefer to use the touchtone keypad to enter their data, rather than speak it into the voice recognition system. Why? The survey’s open form responses indicated that users are still apprehensive about speech recognition problems.

Users Just Want to Speak with an Associate

If provided with the navigation to get to a Customer Service Representative (CSR), would you always choose to be transferred?

The results show that more than 60 percent of respondents prefer to speak with an associate, mostly because of considerations regarding efficiency, privacy, and speed of service. Thus, the option to bypass the automated system in order to talk to a human should be considered the single most important determiner of the IVR customer experience and here’s why: Unlike web and mobile automated systems, the IVR is forced on the customer rather than chosen by the customer. If a customer believes they need to speak to a human, the IVR functions as a non-optional intermediary, causing a sharp negative reaction toward the system. Since most businesses no longer have separate numbers to reach an associate directly, customers have no choice but to go through an automated system first. Quite frankly, the mandatory nature of the IVR system aggravates customers. When poor-quality IVR applications are forced onto customers, companies are putting their customer relationship on the line. And, in our connected society—when competitors are just a click away—these are the moments that can destroy customer loyalty.

Additional best practices for IVR system bypass features include:
  • At no time should the caller be required to request an associate more than once.
  • Callers should never hear that the system can assist them after they have requested an associate.
  • Callers should have the option to return to the IVR if there is a long hold time.

How 10-Minute Waits Affect Customer Satisfaction

If you waited more than 10 minutes on hold for a customer service representative (CSR) and the representative answered all of your questions, how would you rate the overall customer service on a survey?

The survey findings indicate that a 10-minute wait time doesn’t automatically result in dissatisfied customers. In fact, 46 percent of customers believed that a 10-minute wait in queue for an associate was still considered good service, and 12 percent thought that it was excellent service. The important caveat to note is that the question states that the customers received the requested information, which suggests that resolution is a bigger factor in satisfaction than the queue time. As long as customers received the answers to their questions, 58 percent believed it was good to excellent overall customer service. We were surprised that customers would tolerate this long wait time, but it appears that customers are more and more willing to wait for service, which is a direct reflection and result of the mediocre and poor-quality service experiences that are so common today.


IVR systems are one type of service automation that customers love to hate, but the truth is—it’s really a love-hate relationship. Based on eLoyalty’s findings, most customers dislike using IVRs, but appreciate them when the application provides clear, concise, and quick access to the information they need.

The next big thing in IVR technology will be connecting IVR systems to customer management data, so it can provide more intelligent service with background information such as customer calling history, channel preference, and what the customer was doing when they requested service. For now, though, transforming public opinion about IVRs will need to start with a simple customer-centric approach. IVR systems still have a long way to go before they will be considered the popular customer asset that many web or mobile applications are today; however, it is a realistic expectation when these systems are designed with the customer in mind.



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