What’s the Fix for Today’s IVR?

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Years ago, the ATM was put into cities that served as test beds for ATM machines. Bank customers liked the self-service capabilities, and banks across the nation started installing ATM machines. Customers also liked having the ability to check their balances, get cash, and deposit checks. When the ATM was upgraded to count cash deposits, more custom­ers started to use it for cash deposits as well. Each new addition to the automated banking interaction was accepted by the customer, and ATM self-service automation is now ubiqui­tous and accepted worldwide. Customers drive to the bank at all hours of the day and night, choosing to use the ATM as the channel of choice for many banking transactions.
Then, the 1980s brought about the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems. By the late 80s, companies were accepting the systems as an optional channel of service. Unlike today, most companies used a separate toll-free number for customers who chose automation. Companies that were known for their quality customer service said they would never force users to use a machine interface, stating it was ‘rude’ and didn’t represent the type of cus­tomer experience they wanted to provide. However, when the cost savings to companies was realized, almost overnight, the same system that was considered ‘rude’ front-ended close to 100 percent of incoming calls, even for the elite customers. Some companies required the caller to press “0” twice to transfer to an associate.

Today, companies not only force callers to enter information; they also play marketing messages, provide website information, outage information, and/or business hours and locations. This causes long delays when trying to reach an associate and can frustrate customers. No longer can customers ‘choose’ to use the automa­tion; rather they’re often forced to use it as the only means to do business with that specific company or to resolve an issue. More and more companies started to embrace the IVR solution, causing customers to have a very limited number of options if they wanted to speak to an associate.

In reality, however, the fault lies not with the technology, but with the implementation of the technology.

Let’s stop and picture, for a moment, how accepted ATMs would be if they were set up like IVR systems of today. Can the reader imagine a series of ATM machines at the entrance of a brick-and-mortar bank branch that all customers must interact with before the door will open? This interface theoretically is for the purpose of providing the customer with an easy way to perform simple transactions autonomously. It is an enhanced customer service tool. However, the perception would be that these machines block customers from getting access to the knowledgeable human employees eager to provide personalized and expedient service inside the bank. Would many people continue to use this bank and be satisfied? Would that affect the customers’ perceived value of the ATM machine? Any technology that stands in the way of a customer reaching a CSR would be just as quickly vilified and rejected as the IVR.

Now, we need to ask ourselves: If the IVR offers the caller quick answers to most questions, why all the customer frustration and ill will toward IVR systems? We believe, based on our research, that customer frustration stems from the miscalculation of the limitations of automated self-service using voice response by the industry. An automated self-service system should provide the information to the customer in a clear, concise, and quick (CCQ) manner or transfer them to someone who can assist. And, like an ATM, no one should be forced to use it unless the business is closed.

What is the fix for the IVR today? The first is that the IVR needs to cater to the user, not to the company. This requires that the company review the business rules, associate skill group mapping, and gain up front information on who their customers are and what they may need based on the status of their accounts. An IVR system can be designed to be proactive by having the ability to access the customer database using either the Auto Number Identifier (ANI) provided, or request the caller’s account number. Once received, the system can review the account and provide information specific to that caller. For example, if he or she has a bill due within a few days of the call, ask “are you calling to make a payment?” or if they are past due “would you like to set up a payment plan?” When calls are transferred to an associate, the associate should know all the information that the caller provided to the IVR; and ask different security questions to ID the caller.

A well-designed IVR system is a win-win proposition

The bottom line is: If an IVR user interface is set up correctly, people are not only willing to use it; they would prefer to use it. However, if there are messages up front, too many options without the ability to get to an associate (by pressing "0"), and long prompts, the callers will shut down and demand an associate. By following best practices such as shortening prompts, removing marketing messages, website addresses, or other informational messages when the caller is in queue for an associate, the cus­tomer will not hesitate to use the system. However, one bad system does ruin it for many good systems.

So in retrospect, we believe that if the IVR is truly an automated self-service system that is provided to the customer as a matter of choice, that, similar to the ATM, more and more customers would have grown to depend on it and use it. However, we are at the point in IVR evolution where there is no going back. What we now have are numerous opportunities to improve the user interface of the IVR systems still in produc­tion that have upfront marketing messages, website addresses provided when the caller has chosen the phone as the channel to the company, and lengthy menu options that cannot be bypassed.

Hence, the popular disdain and ridicule for the IVR systems is sustained and propagated as a sort of modern technol­ogy folklore. This, of course, is where we come in; as we fix inefficient and poorly executed IVR systems, one system at a time. We return to the core functionality of the business and partner with our customers to provide a more customer-centric environment. We have found that a well-designed IVR system can be a win-win proposition for both the customer and the company that implements it, as it does not only provide better customer service it also assists in the reduction of overall call center costs.