The Designer as Customer

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Preparing for a recent vacation, I had to call three different companies, and I interacted with their IVRs. Reflecting on those calls, I realized they're indicative of how people use IVRs today, and they illustrate common pain points.

The first call was to the credit card company. To redeem points for travel, you book the travel, then pay yourself back using points. I had got to the end of the process when the Web site threw me an error message, saying it couldn't be done, please call this number.

That number, to my surprise, was the standard credit card number. I had to listen to my current balance, minimum payment due, etc., before getting to a menu. And of course, no options faintly resembled what I needed. So I zeroed out, but the agent didn't really understand what I wanted. Finally he got it (I thought) and transferred me, but he sent me to the travel IVR—which I wrote! It wasn't a travel issue; it was a credit card issue. Hang up, call back, listen to stupid balance info, zero out, and hope for a more competent agent. Not fun.

The second call was to a radio provider. For our second vehicle, we don't always subscribe, but a long road trip is good reason to reactivate. Again, I went to the Web site, but I couldn't find the rate I'd got in the mail, so I called. "New Service" was a close enough match on the IVR, and it sent me where I needed to go. Pretty easy.

A week later, my husband told me the service wasn't working in that car. This time I didn't even mess with the Web; I figured I needed a person. Imagine my surprise (and delight) when "Refresh Signal" was in the IVR. Yay for self-service!

The third call was to my wireless provider; I wanted to add data to my iPad for the trip. Again, the Web site failed me, so I called. To the natural language system, I said "add a tablet to my plan." It heard "make a payment."

I tried every trick I knew to back out and go elsewhere rather than answer payment questions. I finally zeroed out and had to hear how making a payment with a rep would cost $5. Good thing I didn't want to make one.

In the end I accomplished my goals, but I took a beating. I needed the vacation to recover from preparing for my vacation.

As we drove through West Texas, I started thinking (what else is there to do, right?) about all of these experiences and wondering what lessons could be pulled from them. I came up with several.

Lesson 1a: The IVR is often an escalation point, so be smart about it. These days, if people pick up the phone, it's likely because they need specialized help, not the generic self-service IVRs of yesterday. Acknowledge that and make it easy for callers to get to the right spot quickly.

Lesson 1b: When your Web site gives a number to call, make it a dedicated number, not the main one. The telephony costs for a special number are low, and remember about getting callers to the right spot quickly? A dedicated line does that, and the agent will know why the caller is calling.

Lesson 2: Customers are good at determining what can be handled with self-service and what can't, but they do underestimate it. It's still possible to delight them with what self-service can do. As much as they say they want to talk to a person, having a problem fixed without needing a person is always better.

Lesson 3: Natural language isn't a cure-all. Given the breadth of what wireless providers do, it may well be the right solution for them, but it's not perfect. It's getting better all the time, but it will never be 100 percent. Plan for errors.

Lesson 4: People need a way to back out. I'm certainly not advocating for confirming everything, but in one call I was asked a follow-up, which is an ideal place for an escape hatch. Provide one where you can.

Lesson 5: Routing is critical. The IVR needs built-in options to get people to the right place on the first try. And agents need better training. They should at least know the different areas within their own company. 

Jenni McKienzie has worked as a consultant with SpeechUsability, a VUI design consulting firm, since 2013. Previously she held positions at Travelocity and Intervoice. She is also a founding board member of the Association for Voice Interaction Design.

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