When choosing an IVR system, look for a vendor that offers a complete solution on its own.
Interactive voice response (IVR) systems and hosting services have become a necessity for many organizations and mission-critical for many others. There are many vendors that offer different deployment and development options. But which one is the right one for you? And how do you choose between them?
First Things First: ROI Analysis
The first thing to do is perform a return on investment (ROI) analysis. Any IVR company that has deep experience in providing call automation solutions will help you perform an analysis to show you whether an IVR can benefit your organization.
There are several ways to look at ROI:
Upgrading an old system. New systems are more reliable, and advanced speech recognition and call flow optimization can improve containment rates (the percentage of callers who complete their tasks using the IVR instead of switching to a live agent), which equals ROI. Hosted services that have 100 percent uptime also yield ROI-always answering the types of calls that should be automated and, thereby, freeing up call reps to handle more complex questions. This will keep the overall cost per call down in your contact centers.
Systems and hosted services that have call analytics can help you see data that shows why callers opt out to talk to a rep. You can fix those issues, which also translates into ROI, by continuously improving call scripts to make information easily accessible while having the added benefit of improving containment rates.
It's pretty simple, actually. The numbers make it easy to see exactly what an IVR will cost and when that IVR will pay for itself. In most cases, an IVR will pay for itself within the first year and go on to save the organization money for many years after its initial deployment.
ROI for automating a company's most frequent requests:
On average, a call handled by a call center representative costs a company $5. An IVR can automate many routine requests for mere pennies.
Customers can get access to information immediately, 24x7. Freeing up agents from routine requests leaves time to focus on customer service and handling more complex issues, which creates higher customer retention and loyalty.
Hosted Versus Onsite
So, once you figure out an IVR can help your company save money through automation, which one do you choose?
There are two ways to deploy an IVR solution: 1) purchase the hardware and software and deploy the system onsite at your business, or 2) host your IVR applications in the cloud. With a hosted solution, the vendor maintains the system and provides access to the software that processes phone calls over the internet (the cloud). With onsite systems, the vendor sells and helps set up the system (they should, anyway), but the buyer maintains the system at its location.
When choosing between hosted and onsite, ask if you have the resources to maintain a system (i.e., you already have or can afford full-time staff dedicated to maintaining the system, setting up relationships with telecommunications carriers, building out a redundant setup). Or, if you just want to sign in and sign off online and forget about it (i.e., the vendor does everything for you).
A benefit of hosted systems is that you get the latest software running on the latest hardware, everything updated and maintained for you by your vendor. The vendor maintains all of the carrier relationships and has redundancy at every level (or should, anyway).
When picking a vendor, make sure it supports the latest speech recognition and text-to-speech software. Also make sure it offers a 100 percent uptime guarantee with a disaster recovery plan. This will ensure business continuity.
You'll also want to make sure your vendor is not a reseller or outsourcing the core technology to anther provider. There are many potential perils of working with IVR providers that outsource their business' core services and technology. IVR vendors that employ this type of business model will most likely lack the in-house expertise needed to run the most important elements of an IVR service, namely platform, application management, and support.
Pick a vendor that has always developed and managed all the core components of its IVR hosting environment itself. Make sure the IVR platform was developed internally by your vendor's engineering team, and that the telco infrastructure was designed and is managed by an in-house operations group. Vendors with this expertise will provide the highest level of support and have the flexibility to easily scale and change their applications to meet your business needs.
Onsite systems must be scalable too. Many of the same rules apply to selecting an onsite system provider. Make sure the vendor is not reselling another company's technology, ensure that the platform can change and scale with your business needs, and select a vendor with a proven track record of deploying IVR systems in different environments. Integration with existing private branch exchange or computer-telephony integration systems is a must and can only be performed properly by telephony experts.
Perhaps the most important attributes of a vendor are longevity and a track record of success in the IVR industry. The last thing you want is to purchase an IVR system only to have the vendor go out of business six months later.
As a hedge against that, your vendor should use open-source programming language (VoiceXML) when designing its IVR systems. If the vendor uses a proprietary language, you're stuck with that vendor because only that vendor knows your system's language.
This is especially important when buying an onsite system. If you leave that vendor, you lose the ability to change your IVR's code or fix your system if it goes offline. Essentially, you have to either keep that system the way it is or buy a new one.
If your system uses open-source VoiceXML, any developer who knows VoiceXML (which is similar to HTML) can rewrite any of the code in your system or add any new code you want (i.e., new capabilities for the software) to add features and change the IVR application's functionality as your business needs grow and change.
A good vendor will offer both hosted and onsite systems. The IVR market includes both, so if a vendor doesn't offer both, it can't claim to have a full grasp on the whole IVR market. Rather, it's likely choosing the IVR delivery method that suits it best, not the one that in many cases suits the customer best.
Also, your vendor's engineers should be the same people developing, maintaining and supporting your system. The last thing you want is development in one country, maintenance in another, and call support in another.
The fact is, deep knowledge of any system can only come from working with the system hands-on-design, development, implementation, support.
If your IVR is a strategic investment, it's vital you make sure you choose the right IVR for your organization, delivered in the manner best suited to you, and guaranteed to be up and running 24/7/365 for years to come.
Charles Smith is director of communications at Plum Voice, a provider of IVR and automated telephony technologies.