Speech Technology Magazine

A Growing Acceptance of Computer-Generated Voice Technology

Consumer trust of IVRs is being propelled by mainstream mobile applications.
By David Baker - Posted Jan 4, 2013
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Many people don't realize that when they ask Siri to set their alarm clocks or schedule their next appointments, they're actually interacting with a technology structure that has existed long before the iPhone. Interactive voice response (IVR) is the familiar automated menu option you hear when you call into a contact center.

While some automated response systems use touchtones to communicate with callers, IVR systems have evolved to recognize spoken keywords, complete sentences, and even the emotion of the caller. Smartphones have not only made IVR systems more accessible and familiar to users, but they've also changed their expectations when communicating with automated systems in contact centers.   

The Evolution of IVR

In its early stages, IVR used simple keyword recognition and "yes or no" questions to route customers to the appropriate departments. A customer could say the word "banking" and be routed to someone who would be able to handle that inquiry. However, had the customer said any more than the recognizable keyword, the system would not have understood. 

Today, IVR has evolved into a more intelligent technology that uses natural voice to capture caller information through open-ended answers in multiple contexts. IVR systems also use big data to collect and organize unstructured caller information to predict behavior and answer inquiries accurately. This technology allows businesses to answer questions more accurately based on aggregated caller information, reduce the overall time customers spend on particular transactions, and optimize any errors that occur as a result.

Let's say Steve bought a new laptop from Bear Computers and is having issues with the operating system. Steve would call the tech-support hotline to register the complaint. Any additional calls to the tech-support hotline will trigger the IVR system to proactively play the status of Steve's complaint upfront once it identifies his phone number.

Same Technology, New Purpose

The evolution of natural voice in IVR systems occurred before the technology was adapted to mobile usage. Mobile devices began adopting IVR technology only after it was perfected by its predecessors. The iPhone's Siri is powered by a computer software technology provider that developed the program's actual technology and algorithms from IVR platforms created for contact centers. 

Many enterprises implement IVR systems that can work across devices, speech-enabled Web sites, and contact center implementations. The benefit in this is that once a customer's voice is recognized on one platform, it will be recognizable to all. Mobile IVR applications implemented for contact centers have the infrastructure, database, and capability to use the same interface and obtain the same information that Siri can obtain from the cloud.  

Although the same IVR technology has existed for years in another form, Siri allowed it to reach customers on a more personal level by becoming part of their everyday lives. Its introduction marked the first time common users could hold the IVR technology in their hands and use it without boundaries. This helped set the stage for a generation that is more accepting of and comfortable interacting with an automated voice system. 

Challenges in IVR

No matter how intelligent an IVR system is, there will always be certain transactions that cannot be completely automated. Issues could arise even for the simplest of inquiries due to unpredictable factors, such as calls from users with different dialects and users whose unfamiliarity with this type of interaction leaves them feeling frustrated. Approximately 10 percent to 15 percent of transactions are so complex that they require human interaction. Some examples might include inquiries about a rare defect in a product, sophisticated technical support, or an irate customer looking for immediate assistance. 

Despite complex transactions requiring agent interaction, IVR systems are built to be context-aware in that the system learns the user rather than the other way around. Rather than waiting for a caller to respond, the system can predict his needs and proactively make recommendations based on information pulled from the database and previous interactions with the caller. Ideally, speech technology can take on the role of a personal assistant, adapting to a caller's habitual schedule and anticipating his needs. For example, if Steve has travel plans in the next 24 hours, the IVR can be configured to proactively notify him with a simple phone call of departure information and other relevant information. 

Looking Forward

The future of IVR technology lies in customer satisfaction. The primary goal in developing intelligent IVR systems is to drive positive customer experiences by assisting callers on their preferred channels at the right times and with the most useful information. The adaptation of IVR technology to everyday mobile devices has only made this shift more seamless for consumers. The same comfort and trust callers feel when asking Siri to navigate them home should be present in their interactions with automated voice recognition systems in other contexts. 

As businesses continue to implement technology that is able to understand callers and their needs, trust for this type of technology will come naturally.


David Baker is vice president of sales and business development at Servion Global Solutions, which specializes in delivering customer interaction management applications for contact centers, enhancing customer interactions via the phone, Internet, email, chat, and social media.

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