Regaining Consumer IVR Confidence: Companies Draw on Different Tools to Save IVR/Speech Interaction

Organizations realize that customers' IVR experiences can change the way they view the company, for better or worse.  In a recent Forrester study, 176 companies with revenues of $500 million indicated they would spend more money this year on a wide range of customer experience categories.  They know that for many customers, navigating an IVR feels like walking around with a blindfold on.  Customers can be easily confused when the rules change from step to step.  In an ideal world, a customer would enter an IVR system, tell it what he or she wants to do and it would route him or her to the proper area of the application.  In reality, creating this perfect IVR is a very difficult endeavor.

Consider the following situation: Rachel, a customer of a large Healthcare service provider, has been told by her primary care physician that she needs to consult a specialist. She knows she can obtain information on primary care physicians covered under her plan over the phone and assumes the same is true for specialists. She calls customer service and is placed in the company's IVR system.  She listens to a long list of menu options and finally hears one about physicians and chooses that option. Rachel is then prompted to use the company's speech recognition system to indicate what she'd like to do. After speaking "select specialist" multiple times, she is transferred to the billing department. Frustrated, Rachel hits zero to speak with an agent and is placed in queue for what she considers to be a long period of time.  When she finally reaches the correct department, she is agitated and upset. Moreover, the cost of serving her increased significantly because she opted to speak to a live agent.

Organizations can drastically cut costs by directing customers to IVR systems in order to allow them to self-serve.  Each time someone like Rachel opts to speak with a customer service agent, it costs the company anywhere from $5 to $15, according to Forrester Research.  Compare that to self-service interactions that typically cost no more than a dollar or two per transaction and you see why companies are feeling the need to optimize these systems - it should be a win-win situation for them and their customers.  So what are the methods companies can deploy to help save this channel?

Tracking with Logs

Logs and record files are generated as a result of a customer's interaction with a specific application.  For example, Rachel's interaction with her healthcare provider's IVR system created a record that says who the customer is, what time she called and what specific set of steps she took.  Speech system log files can also include what the system heard the caller say.  In Rachel's case, her spoken command of "select specialist" was translated into text and matched up with a set of grammar states, which unfortunately was interpreted by the speech software as a request to be transferred to the billing department.  

Logs and record files are widely available as part of an organization's IVR system, but are not often utilized because they can be challenging to interpret.  For example, it would be difficult to reach any solid conclusions regarding problems with your IVR system by looking at a spreadsheet with log files on 100,000 calls.  Additionally, logs and record files don't tell the story of the confused caller who gets stuck in an error loop and can't get out.  They can be helpful in confirming specific issues, but they do not in and of themselves provide a "big picture" view of your IVR system. 

Design documentation

IVR design documentation allows designers to see the intricacies of your speech or IVR system.  Similar to a schematic layout of something like a refrigerator, which would allow you to see how the components are positioned, where the water supply came in, where you hook up your electricity, design documentation shows you the flow of your system, how callers get from point "A" to point "B" and what specific steps callers go through. 

Design documentation will get down into the fundamental details.  For example, it will show the number of digits the system allows after the "enter your account number" prompt and whether or not the customer has to press the pound sign.  Often IVR systems are built by outside firms based on the requirements given by the company, so design documentation can be a good way for customer service managers to learn more about the customer's experience within their IVR system.  Design documentation can be a good place to start in developing an overall strategy for improving customer experiences. 

Customer Feedback

More than 95 percent of the companies surveyed by Forrester indicated that customer surveys were either "extremely helpful" or "helpful" in their efforts to improve the customer experience in 2005.  However, organizations need to recognize that survey results can be heavily impacted by the most recent experience of a customer.  A customer could have a horrible experience with an IVR system on a regular basis, and then have one great experience, which makes them forget about previous interactions.  Conversely, you could have a fantastic call center interaction, but one bad experience, which could impact the customer's responses. 

In-house Information

Interviews with customer service agents can provide useful secondhand information about the customer's experience.  Agents might notice a higher-than-normal volume of customers - seven out of 10, for example - are having problems paying bills through the IVR system. 

Agent interviews can be helpful because these individuals are on the forefront taking these calls every day, but they are limited in how much value they can provide because they are by and large hearsay and based only on the experience of that particular agent. 

Customer Behavior Research

Among the companies surveyed in the Forrester study, 40 percent said they would spend more on customer behavioral research, which can be a great way to see the "big picture" of the IVR/speech system.  Analytics and similar technologies that help organizations learn more about customer behavior can be deployed on current IVRs before they move on with more complicated technologies like speech applications.  This allows managers to look at existing systems and get an understanding of current behavior and identify areas where deployment of speech applications would be most effective.  For example, it might make sense to deploy speech within an application with low throughput resulting from a complex set of steps. 

If speech applications are already deployed, the technology can specifically help organizations understand how customers are utilizing speech applications, highlighting areas of suboptimal performance in different areas. 

While design documentation and log files of user interactions can be somewhat valuable when evaluated in isolation, they can become extremely powerful if they are understood in combination.  This combination of structure and use leads to understanding exactly how customers utilize self-service applications - or Customer Behavior Intelligence.

Customer Behavior Intelligence comes from the combination of the structure of a traditional DTMF IVR or speech application with the log files that describe user interactions with those systems.  The combination of the structure and the aggregate user interactions provides powerful understanding of exactly how customers navigate the application and highlights shortcomings of the system and where the flow does not exactly match how the customer wants to interact. 

Best Practices

In order to achieve the most success in optimizing and streamlining an IVR system, organizations should consider deploying a combination of all of these methods, with emphasis placed on understanding exactly how customers in aggregate use self-service applications and where the shortcomings are from their perspective.  By leveraging a strategic combination of customer behavior intelligence, customer service interviews and surveys, organizations can reduce customer frustration with IVR systems, which will result in drastic savings, while also improving customer satisfaction.

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