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Companies Learn Slowly from IVR Mistakes

Prompts that leave customers screaming rather than satisfied are still too common
By Paul Korzeniowski - Posted Nov 10, 2017
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Interactive voice response (IVR) systems have been in use for decades, and interest in the technology still continues to grow to this day. The global IVR market currently stands at $3.73 billion and is expected to expand to $5.54 billion by 2023, growing at a compounded annual rate of 6.83 percent, according to MarketsandMarkets research.

But while IVR sales continue to surge, the reality is that most customers still dislike the systems. Other customer service channels, such as social media, email, chat, text messaging, and the Web, are much more popular choices among customers today. IVR interactions are forced upon them, whether they like it or not. When customers call the companies with which they do business, they expect to talk to a human, and an IVR system instantly becomes an impediment to reaching that goal. 

Improvements are coming to IVR systems, though. MarketsandMarkets attributes the growth of the IVR market to increasing integration of advanced technologies and a rise in cloud-based services. It singles out natural language processing (NLP) as one of the leading technology advances that has been gaining increased adoption in the past decade. Using NLP technology, IVR solutions can now be smarter, it concluded. NLP is also helping to reduce the amount of time consumers need to spend on the phone to get queries resolved, which, in turn, helps organizations achieve higher cost optimization, according to the report.

But customers haven’t really noticed much of a change over the years. For them, the thought of using an IVR still creates frustration rather than satisfaction. Systems still make them repeat their personal information; feel dumb for not giving the right response; frustrated at having to wait before getting the help they desire; and enraged when the conversation is cut off before they get where they want to go.

“The reality is that many systems are still not easy to use despite the fact that best practices have emerged through the years,” says Bill Pawlak, co-founder of Frontside, a product research, design, and validation company.

Problems arise, Pawlak argues, because corporations make menu selections too complicated, focus more on their own desires than what customers want, and do not tune systems as much as needed. In building their prompts, companies sometimes lose track of a simple objective: They must focus on what the customer desires. 

“IVR systems need to take the emotional disposition of the caller into consideration,” explains Walter Rolandi, founder of the Voice User Interface Company. “Everyone calls with a problem: Their check did not clear, the product does not work, their password was not reset. They are distressed, in need of help, and do not want to be on the phone.” 

In fact, customers in general, and not just distressed callers, would rather not be on the phone at all. When they do have to call, their introduction to customer service should not be cold, riddled with simple and impersonal yes-and-no, black-and-white questions and answers, but it is. The system does not acknowledge customer emotions, which usually are running high. So their bad mood quickly gets worse. They feel helpless and frustrated. 

Unlike web chat users, who have some control over the process, callers have to wait and listen to whatever the system has to say before they can act. Often, the customer will get mad, give up before the transaction is finished, and try to find another way to resolve his problem. 

Two Different Goals

Businesses and consumers view these interactions differently. “Developers have a different perspective about the term ‘it works’ than consumers do,” says Peter Deveaux, director of self-service and innovations at Aspect Software, a provider of native customer engagement, workforce management, and self-service solutions. 

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