The Oxymoron of the IVR Experience


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I know why companies use IVR (Interactive Voice Response) systems: They’re cheap. And there’s a lot to be said for trimming costs and looking for operational efficiencies. But p-l-e-a-s-e don’t try to sandbag customers, shareholders or anyone else with claims that IVR provides a better customer experience. It provides a less-expensive means of handling the customer experience. Period.

Never forget, moreover, that this is a branded experience. That is, when companies banish their customers (not to mention prospective customers) to the IVR labyrinth, this is yet another customer experience or touchpoint representing the brand. Companies would be wise, as such, to be certain that the “IVR experience” is the type of interaction they want to represent them. At the very least, the company should carefully evaluate and be certain that the cost savings are sufficient to more than offset the potential hit to their brand.

The reality is that IVR systems offer an experience that is about as pleasant as an appendectomy without anesthesia. Think of all of the times you have pounded the “O” key, hit random key sequences, or screamed expletives at a synthesized voice, imploring them to understand you and route you to a live person. Forget WikiLeaks: the true heroes of the consumer are those who post online the phone numbers or sequence codes you can use to reach live people or specified departments.

I have never – repeat NEVER – had a pleasant “IVR experience.” And I have never heard anyone tell me that they have enjoyed an IVR experience. If you have (and aren’t a rep or tech for a company pushing IVR), please let me know.

It’s bad enough that callers must endure the perennial lies (“We are experiencing higher than normal call volumes so your wait time may be longer than usual” or “Please listen to all of the options as our menu has recently changed”), but why compound the lie with the pretense of a better service experience? Don’t pretend that this is “so we can serve you better.” Consumers hear that from all corners, ranging from their bank and healthcare providers to their cable and mobile companies. Tell the truth: “We use IVR so we can serve you more efficiently and less expensively.”

I long for the day when I get an honest IVR intro:

To control costs and remain competitive we can’t afford to have a live person answer the phone any longer. We had to fire Betsy and her staff and replace them with this system to route your calls. Yes, we know it is a far from pleasant experience, but it’s the best we can do. Besides, everyone else does it. So we hope this works without causing you too much “agita” or inconvenience. If not, at least rest assured that we are saving money, some of which we are passing on to you in the form of not increasing prices. Now, in a few words, please tell us why you called?

And every company that automatically disconnects callers when they hammer on the “O” key rather than permit customers to speak to a live person should be subject to 10 years of IRS audits and social media hate mail.

Using IVR for Surveys

It is only a short step from using IVR to disseminate information to using IVR to collect information. Again, costs are super-cheap, which always is attractive. What you can collect, of course, is inherently limited by the medium. A few simple questions and perhaps a comment. One to two minutes max. (Mea culpa: I have gone this route once or twice in the past.)

But companies should be careful to make certain that an IVR survey is the “right” experience. Client-sponsored surveys represent the brand and should convey an impression or image of the company. Yes, we want the best, most objective measurement (and IVR reduces interviewer bias, for example). But the larger objective is that of what’s good for business. Can a survey experience that reflects poorly on the sponsor ever be advantageous for the business, even if it is a low-cost means of data collection?

Asking a customer to complete a survey is asking them for a favor. Even if a company uses IVR for routing in-bound calls and handling service inquiries, surveys are an intrusion of some sort. While the objective of the survey is data collection, surveys leave an impression on respondents – and companies need to pay attention to that impression.

What amazes me is when firms use IVR for their customer experience surveys without thinking about any potentially adverse effects and minimizing the likelihood of such effects. The idea of using the least enjoyable type of experience (that is, IVR) as the medium through which to ask customers about the caliber of a company’s experience always should be subject to extra scrutiny. Sure, it’s tempting to use IVR as a near-immediate (and cheap, of course) mechanism for feedback following a call-center interaction, for example. But be careful, as a customer who is disgruntled by a call center experience may become infuriated by an IVR experience that compounds the problem.

“The medium is the message.” In other words, how a company conveys the information (or the survey) is inseparable from the information itself. So think about the medium, know its limitations and issues, and make certain it reflects back upon the company the impression that you want to convey. This applies to any sponsor-identified surveys, whether with live interviewers, online, mobile or via any other mode as well.

For me, I can’t wait until I receive an IVR survey asking me about a previous IVR experience. Perhaps I’ll even install an IVR system in my home to screen for and handle IVR surveys.


  1. It’s a little like reading a Monty Python script; however, that said, anything that drives customer experience negativity – and thus influences negative downstream behavior – needs to be mitigated or eliminated. There’s a price to be paid for ‘cheap’. Just look at the number of companies now pulling their offshore customer service operations back to the U.S.

  2. Howard

    I’m not sure that ‘either Betsy and her team OR the IVR’ is the more common alternative.

    I think it’s more likely to be ’employ additional customer service reps OR invest in IVR … OR do neither and allow a greater decline in customer-service quality’.

    So, it’s possible to argue that IVR has improved customer service without arguing that the IVR is nicer to interact with than Betsy.

    I agree it’s annoying when organizations use IVR’s to make it impossible to talk with customer service, but I have no problem with it being used to route call traffic more efficiently.

    Personally, I’d prefer speed over personality most days!

  3. Couldn’t agree more! Large sections of BPO contracts are dedicated to IVR details without any regard for how the customer experience will be impacted. I recently used an analogy with a client – investing in a better IVR is no different than a hospital investing in a better waiting room => the impact to the customer experience is exactly the same.

  4. Hi Howard,

    I disagree with almost all of your article.

    First: Yes, IVRs are designed to save $$. Some companies would have to triple their number of agents without them. Do the callers want to pay more? Agents are very expensive – your recommendation directly affects the price for services and goods.

    Second, I use them all them time and often prefer them. Do I want to sit in a queue to renew my prescription? Do I want to sit in a queue to schedule an appointment at the Dept of Motor Vehicles? – I be sitting 5 or 10 minutes in queue at a minimum. Do I want to have to wait until Monday morning – when I have to work – in order to do a basic transactions with agents when I can do them on the IVR Sunday afternoon?

    Websites are not always better. Often you can’t do what you want. That’s why we end up calling call centers. Are you also suggesting we get rid of websites because they can also be poor? The argument is identical. However, companies invest 10 and 20 times more $ on building their websites than their IVRs.

    The real problem is that many IVRs are not designed or implemented correctly. There are some that are excellent, and one can do complex transactions quickly and easily. But this is the exception. Currently, most companies don’t even know their ‘customer experience’ on the IVRs. They don’t know what works and what doesn’t. They invest almost nothing in them compared to agent training. The real solution is to fix the IVRs and make they peformance – because they can be very good with some effort.

    Yes, companies want to save dollars. But implemented well, they work very well. But currently only some companies spend the effort because most companies simply don’t know how to make them better.


  5. Ron

    Read the last three sentences in Howard’s opening paragraph. He is clearly refuting the claim that IVR’s can provide better customer service.

    But his premise is wrong.

    Sometimes it IS better to talk to a machine than it is to talk to Betsy.

    And even if it isn’t, on average, customer service quality will often rise when some of the load is absorbed by an IVR, freeing humans to deal with more complex issues.

    Howard makes the strange claim that he has ‘never’ had a positive IVR experience and extrapolates from this to conclude that no one else ever has either.

    This may be a popular position (and that is evidenced by the chorus of sympathetic comments) but it’s a position that will be mortally wounded by a single individual claiming that they would rather interact (on occasion) with an IVR.

    Seems there are at least two of us making that claim now!



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