IVR Has a Black Eye

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Ally Bank's TV and print advertisements emphasize that their customers never need to use an IVR: "You can always speak with a live person when you call us ... you'll never spend time fumbling through a phone tree just to find there's no one to take your call ..." (http://community.ally.com/straight-talk/2011/05/ally-banks-telephone-customer-service-has-consumers-smiling/).

Meanwhile, GetHuman.com (http://gethuman.com/iphone/) provides a smartphone app to bypass IVR systems: According to the site, the "iPhone app has customer service phone numbers for major businesses and the steps for getting a live person.... The app dials the phone number for you after suggesting how to talk to a real person."

During the past 10 years, designers of voice user interfaces have researched and developed guidelines and techniques to enable customers to quickly and efficiently perform transactions and get the information they need. So why do consumers still generally dislike IVR applications? Some systems might enforce company policies, such as those listed in "Frugal Customer Service Policies" below, to try to save money. In reality, these policies spawn unhappy customers.

As a result of the policies, customers not only dislike the specific company, but also dislike phone customer support systems. In short, companies with frugal IVR policies are causing customers to dislike all IVR systems.

IVR systems are not the only customer support channel. Like Ally Bank, some companies have customer phone systems without IVR. Web pages offer customer help, often in the form of answers to frequently asked questions. Customers use social networks to get answers to questions posted by other customers. Online chat enables customers to interact with human support agents. Or, smartphone applications with graphical user interfaces search the Web to find the information that consumers want or to perform services for them.

Will customers switch from IVR to other channels of communications? Yes. Customers choose the channel of communication that best fits their needs. They will abandon IVR systems that enforce frugal policies.

Will voice-only IVR systems eventually disappear? Not if businesses using IVR systems reject frugal IVR policies and treat their customers more humanely.

Most customers despise IVR systems that use a containment policy. Customers wanting to speak with a human agent, no matter what the reason, become frustrated when they can't escape from the IVR system. After they have abandoned the call, they tend to dislike the company and IVR systems in general.

Customers don't like to waste their time waiting for a live person. If customers have an estimate of how long the wait is, they might decide to do something productive during that time, call back later, or request that the company call back. Waiting for an indefinite period tends to anger customers.

Speaking the same information every time a customer is transferred to either another IVR system or a human agent also wastes the time of the customer, the IVR, and the human agent. With modern CRM systems, information can easily be captured once and passed on with transferred calls.

IVR systems assume customers are blind. Customers often ask that a menu be repeated because they do not understand an option, forget options, cannot recall how to select a specific option, or just want to review the options. One solution is to display the menu on the small mobile device screen. Many users can scan a menu of options displayed on the small screen faster than they can listen to a complete menu of verbal prompts. In addition, displaying prompts helps customers choose from among menu options faster and more accurately. Displaying IVR menu options maintains your investment in your current IVR system without having to rewrite IVR applications as smartphone applications.

Please stop using frugal policies. Spend some money to improve customer service, and keep your customers happy and willing to return for more business. Help make the IVR black eye fade into history. ?

Frugal Customer Service Policies

  1. Strict containment policy: Do not allow callers to escape from the IVR system to speak with a human agent because IVR systems are less expensive than human agents.
  2. “Keep callers in the dark” policy: Do not tell callers how long they can expect to wait when they join a queue before speaking with a human agent because of the expense of estimating the call wait time or fear that the caller will abandon the call.
  3. Delete customer information policy: Ask callers to repeat information collected earlier in the call or during previous calls because of the complexity of saving collected information or passing collected customer information when transferring the caller to another IVR or a live agent.
  4. Blind customer policy: Do not invest in new technology that provides a visual component to the IVR system.

James A. Larson, Ph.D., is an independent speech consultant. He is program chair for SpeechTEK and its sister conference, SpeeckTEK Europe. He also teaches courses in speech user interfaces at Portland State University and the Oregon Institute of Technology. He can be reached at jim@larson-tech.com.

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