Don’t Just Rule the IVR Out of the Customer Service Experience

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Intelligent or Interactive Voice Response systems are often criticized. Just a few days ago, Shaun Smith, a respected Customer Experience Consultant and blogger on Customer Think, argued that IVR’s almost never build empathy and therefore do not contribute to a positive Customer Service Experience. You can read the post here.

Smith makes some very valid points with regard to the Customer Experience and the need to treat the Contact Center as being an integrated part it. I could not agree more.

When discussing the role of the IVR in the entire Customer Experience I believe it is important to understand the entire Customer Service Experience and not just focus on one touch point. Also it is important to understand the Customer’s desired outcome when seeking Customer Services.

I think it’s safe to say Customers desire a solution to their problems or answers to their questions. More precisely I believe the Customer desires a correct answer/solution within a reasonably (short) time-frame and with minimal effort invested to get it. I agree that the Customer, when in direct contact with an employee, desires the employee to be empathic to his situation. Also the Customer requires the employee to have all relevant information for his specific case available and not having to provide the details of his case or question over and over again.

When designing the Customer Service Experience companies need to carefully weigh meeting the need for speed, effectiveness, low Customer effort and personalized empathic resolution.

An IVR can play an important role in meeting Customer’s desired outcomes of the Customer Service Experience. For one it can provide compelling and easy to use self-service experiences (minimal Customer effort and speed). Secondly, when IVR’s are connected to company’s CRM-systems they can provide the Customer Service Rep with all available Customer information, even before the Rep answers the phone (minimal Customer effort and speed). Thirdly IVR’s have the ability to route Customers to the Rep with the knowledge and systems needed to answer the Customer’s question or resolve his problem (correct answer, minimal Customer effort and speed).

All of the above functionalities of the IVR can contribute to meeting Customer’s desired outcomes and therefore to a compelling and good Customer Service Experience. This experience will become great when talking to an empathic Customer Service Rep that is empowered to a level that he or she can take ownership of the Customer’s question, request or complaint and solve it in one call.

I therefore believe that the IVR is a necessary tool in the design of a Customer Service Experience. One does need to be careful with having too many options and too many layers in it as a consequence of the minimal Customer Effort principle. Also Contact Center forecasting and planning capabilities need to be on a high level to ensure minimal risk at long waiting queues (although Customer’s do weigh a first time right answer higher than short waiting times).

Last, but certainly not least, one needs to provide a compelling and great online customer self-service experience first. More and more (by now a vast majority I believe) Customers are searching your website or service communities before dialing into the Contact Center. If they do not find it there, you’re already 0 – 1 behind (customer effort increases, speed of resolution decreases). Making that up with an IVR and an empathic Customer service Rep will make the Customer Service Experience a zero-sum-game to the max.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I fully agree with this. Keeping an IVR to the minimum will ensure that the customer’s experience does not get broken down even before the customer is talking to an agent/representative. Of course, everything that has happened before the IVR does also already count toward the customer experience but let’s focus on the experience that is provided on the phone.

    Next to that, customers should also have the ability to bail out (Press * to talk to an agent)

    One additional item I miss is that from an IVR you get some sort of reporting. As most CRM systems are agent driven and can cause some issues with reporting (forgot to log etc) having a system that allows you to use the customers input for reporting is great to have. The confidence level is of course not >95% but at least it will give you a high level overview of your customer base and their high level needs.

  2. Wim,

    I agree that the IVR system is another channel of communication that should always be considered. While not important for all businesses it can be an important communication channel and never ignored. Important things to keep in mind:

    – It does not have to be a one way vehicle. Use customer input to simplify the workflow where possible.
    – Keep the interface simple. I strongly dislike any company that makes me jump through more than a couple of options. It is poor design.
    – When utilizing IVR tie it into your other systems. It is a horrible user experience when you enter information into the IVR only have to repeat it when you finally reach a human later in the conversation process.

    Good post.

    John Moore

  3. Thx for leaving a comment. It is much appreciated.

    You made a very valid comment on IVR and the reporting you can get from that. One addition from my side: When the IVR and your ACD-system are CTI-connected to the CRM system the data will provide you with even more valuable information to improve the Customer Experience. This is an opportunity one should not be willing to miss out on.

    Thx again for your contribution!

  4. Thx for engaging John. It is highly appreciated!

    I agree completely with your comments. Companies should probably better utilize the potential of the IVR to improve and enhance the experience. Unfortunately a lot of companies do not, or even (ab)use its capabilities to reduce call-volume, without actually providing solutions or outcomes their Customers care about. This doesn’t mean the IVR is to blame.

    Thx for the compliment too.

    Wim Rampen

  5. Good post, interesting comments.

    Good VUI design can make all the difference. Nevertheless, I prefer the simplicity/usability of speech-enabled call routing systems that prompt customers to express their needs in their own words. Such systems have all the advantages you mention and, if properly trained and tuned, they are more user-friendly and efficient than traditional menu-based IVR systems.

    Evidently, deploying speech-enabled call routing systems is more expensive than deploying menu-based IVR systems. Therefore, it only makes sense to deploy speech-enabled call routing systems if the call volumes are high enough to profit from the reduced number of IVR drop-outs, zero-outs, misrouted calls, and the shorter call times.

  6. I fully agree with this. Keeping an IVR to the minimum will ensure that the customer’s experience does not get broken down even before the customer is talking to an agent/representative. Of course, everything that has happened before the IVR does also already count toward the customer experience but let’s focus on the experience that is provided on the phone. Next to that, customers should also have the ability to bail out (Press * to talk to an agent) One additional item I miss is that from an IVR you get some sort of reporting. As most CRM systems are agent driven and can cause some issues with reporting (forgot to log etc) having a system that allows you to use the customers input for reporting is great to have. The confidence level is of course not >95% but at least it will give you a high level overview of your customer base and their high level needs.

    Kind Regards,
    Arvid Bux

  7. Hi Christophe,

    although I see the added value of having speech-enabling call routing, this will work in small environments. When you have a complex setup, multiple vendors and locations in a region it will be more difficult. Not all vendors will be able to provide you this service and then taking the second best thing is the only option.

    What I have noticed with speech-enabling call routing that for countries where you have a lot of different accents, it could cause a lot of issues. Since the experience I design is already across multiple countries, using such a service is difficult.

    Zero-outs, I know, they are a pain but they still represent a set amount of customers that just don’t like to be handled by such an IVR system. Compared to check-in desks at airports, even though you have automated desk where you can check-in, still a lot of customers walk up to the desk which with a steward to do the check-in. Why? laziness? maybe. Inadequate? Maybe. Or they just want value for their money.

  8. Hi Arvid,

    Thanks for your reply.

    In my experience, multi-site deployments with multiple vendors are not necessarily cumbersome. My team has been involved in the deployment and optimization of speech-enabled call routing systems at two large organizations in the Netherlands. Both systems are capable of routing calls to multiple call centers and both systems achieve good performance. Many similar systems have been installed around the world. I am curious to hear which vendors or systems integrators do not support multi-site deployments, and why they don’t.

    I agree with you that coping with regional variation in speech can be a challenge with some languages. However, the systems I referred to above both show good performance for Dutch (as spoken in the Netherlands), a language with significant regional variation. Evidently, we did only achieve this performance after considerable training and optimization of the speech recognition module and (in particular) the classification module (which determines the actual routing of the calls).

    I can imagine that deploying multilingual systems can be an issue. Each language would require specific training and optimization of the system. There is a price attached to that, which can only be justified if the call volumes are high enough to make a sound business case.

  9. Gents

    This is an age-old discussion. I remember having it with colleagues at PwC’s Telecoms practice 15 years ago. Some issues, same discussions, just new solutions.

    I think Wim hit the nail on the head in recognising that technology is just an enabler for customers to do important jobs and achieve valuable outcomes. If I want to check my credit card balance, I want to do it through a sinple, secure IVR. I don’t want to speak to a CSR. However, if I want to make an international payment transfer, I want to do it through a CSR who has access to all my account details. I don’t want to do it through an IVR. Different jobs, different technology-enabled solutions.

    For many simple, fast, remote jobs, an IVR of one sort or another is just the right solution. For others it isn’t. It is faddishly incorrect to assume that technology can never replace human interaction. It depends on the customer, the job they are trying to do and the outcome they want to achieve, This understanding should be the start-point for CEX design (and for technology-enabled solution design too).

    Oh, and if you still hate IVRs, try Fonolo. Its IVR crawler technology will navigate the IVR and let you know when a live CSR is on the phone.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.

  10. Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Menus is superior most call management features. All call management features would fail without an IVR menu. It’s a guide that navigates you through the company and places you with the right department and person.
    Upon dialing a freephone number you will be greeted by a custom announcement followed by an IVR menu. You can decide the language for interaction followed by many options for you to select. IVR menu as the name suggests is interactive as it takes you step by step to your final destination in the company. It will keep on providing options or menus to choose and arrive at the department of your choice.

    Any company has many kinds of services to provide from enquires to sales and from complaints to help. Different customers will have different needs and based on their requirements they will be placed across a staff who can help them. All this can happen seamlessly with application of an IVR menu.

    Hence it is important that a company’s IVR menu covers a wide array of departments and sub departments different for enquiries, service, and sales in a way that can clearly define a customer’s requirement. IVR menu in a professional tone generates confidence in the company because they are organized in handling customer’s calls.

    As custom announcement, IVR on 0800 Numbers, 0845 Numbers and 0844 Numbers is an equally powerful tool to show professionalism.

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