“Say yes if you are checking your account balance.” Daily, millions of consumers find themselves interacting with speech-enabled interactive voice response (IVR) systems. Traditionally, such apps would often lead to individuals slamming down or yelling into their phones in frustration, but recently many consumers find the applications helpful. “Speech recognition IVRs are not perfect, but now we find a growing number that are well-designed and provide consumers with a good experience, such as the systems helping a person change their flights when problems arise,” states Edward Miller, founder and CEO at LumenVox.
A number of factors have led to the improvements. First, businesses are willing to invest more money in these solutions. Delivering a good customer experience ranked as the top priority in an annual survey conducted by DMG Consulting. Speech recognition IVRs play a key role in that exchange: An eConsultancy survey found that the telephone is the first line of customer support for online shopping interactions. Consequently, organizations are now spending money on these solutions with the end goal of improving the customer experience.
Timing is another factor in management opening up the purse strings. “A lot of the IVR systems were installed more than a decade ago,” says Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting. These solutions cannot be easily upgraded to support new functions, like cloud solutions, mobile systems, and social media. Since their life cycle is nearing the end and the legacy systems do not mesh with current needs, top management is now willing to make significant investments in upgrading their IVR solutions.
Technical Advances Abound
In addition, technology has improved. “IVRs are now able to look at context and other linguistic components to provide a more natural experience,” states Julie Underdahl, senior user experience designer at Genesys. Vendors—like Aspect Software, AT&T, Avaya, Cisco Systems, Convergys, Database Systems, Dialogic Corporation, Enghouse Systems Limited, Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, IBM, LumenVox, Mitel Networks, The Plum Group, Verizon Communications, and West Corporation—have been making progress in improving their solutions’ responsiveness.
The systems have become more intuitive and easier to interact with. “You do not have companies asking customers, “How may I help you?” Miller notes. Such questions are too broad, and trying to answer them often frustrated the consumer. In addition, speech recognition engines now correctly identify a larger percentage of words and do a better job of accounting for accents and other items that often tripped up the systems in the past.
Also, these solutions are being supplemented with emerging technology that enhances their performance. Virtual IVRs guide customers to and often through web-based self-support options that ideally end with a purchase, the answering of a query, or the solving of a problem. Speech analytics enable organizations to sift through a large volume of call records, identify business processes that are working well or failing badly, and incorporate that knowledge back into the organization. Artificial intelligence and machine learning help vendors build solutions that connect different applications, evaluate large amounts of information, and automate manual processes, so businesses respond faster and more effectively to customer needs. In some cases, these systems provide consumers with help even before they ask for it. For instance, a customer peruses a local retailer’s website and the system presents her with a map and a set of directions to the store so she can come in and make a purchase, according to Amy Goodwin, senior speech technologist at West Corp.