The Modality of Last Resort

Article Featured Image

Folks in the interactive voice response (IVR) and call center business, especially those of us in speech technology, spend a lot of time talking about how vital the telephone is as a means of communication. Every good marketing director in the business can cite studies that show how many customers prefer communicating with organizations via the phone rather than going online, and how telephones vastly outnumber PCs. I don’t dispute these ideas and agree that IVR systems should be built to serve customers for whom the telephone is the primary means of communicating with an organization. The issue I’d like to point out is that customers who reach for the phone first are not the only customers who use IVRs.

Consider, instead, customers who normally prefer using a company’s Web site rather than calling. In some cases, customers decide to call because it’s inconvenient or impossible to go online at the time an issue occurs. It’s easier to call and listen to your flight status when you’re on the way to the airport, for example, even if your phone has wireless Internet access. 

In other cases, preference for a certain modality is driven by the nature of the customer’s task. It’s much easier to look at your transaction history than to listen to it being spoken by an IVR, for instance. Companies sometimes create these modality preferences by de-incentivizing certain customer behaviors: If you charge customers extra to make a payment by phone, then they will only do so if they have no other choice. 

There are also customers with stronger preferences for interacting online rather than calling. I have met a growing number of people in usability tests who always try the Web site first, no matter their tasks or situations. These IVR avoiders tend to be younger, more educated, and more affluent, but it’s not a homogenous group. When you talk to these customers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “This is not the target audience for my IVR; I can never satisfy them.” 

Why bother designing for customers who dislike IVRs and avoid using them? Not doing so is a huge mistake because, when pushed, even the most ardent IVR avoiders pick up the phone and dial. And when they do, they represent a unique use case that is often neglected in voice user interface design.

When IVR avoiders call in, it’s often as a last resort. Most likely, they have already been to a Web site to try to solve their problems and failed. Perhaps the information they needed is simply not available on the Web site—you might not want to call technical support, but sometimes you have to. Perhaps they tried to complete their transactions and needed more information, or perhaps the transactions failed. In all of these cases, the situation is quite different than when the phone is the preferred mode of communication.

If you think of the user experience as customers do, then the Web site-to-phone sequence is all one experience of trying to solve a problem. Unfortunately, we very often treat Web and IVR interactions as separate and unrelated, and that has an especially bad impact on customers’ perceptions of IVRs. Because they call as a last resort, the stakes are higher. By the time an IVR avoider picks up the phone, he is already frustrated, his patience is worn thin, and he’s anxious about being able to complete his obviously important task. It’s no wonder IVR avoiders are dissatisfied when they encounter the typical IVR system, which, oblivious to what they’ve already been through, treats them the same as every other caller. I suspect that a poor IVR user experience turns IVR avoiders into IVR haters, perpetuating the popular notion of IVR as a stupid, infuriating technology that companies use in spite of their customers.

Any organization that’s serious about providing an excellent customer experience must find a way to identify and better serve IVR avoiders when they call. I would love to end this article with a set of specific design tips, but the sad fact is I’m in the same boat as most designers: I don’t have the data to solve this problem, though I know how to get it. The solution begins with taking a unified view of the customer experience across all of the modalities a customer might use to interact with your organization. To serve all customers (including IVR avoiders) well in the IVR, we need to understand not just who the callers are, but their motivations for calling, their frames of mind, and their specific contexts of use. This sort of in-depth understanding can come only from strategic user research, a phase that is incomplete or entirely missing from most IVR projects. But user research is not a luxury—it is a vital step that can mean the difference between coaxing IVR avoiders into seeing the benefits of the technology or creating another dissatisfied customer. 

Susan Hura, Ph.D., is principal and founder of SpeechUsability, a VUI design consulting firm. She can be reached at susan@speechusability.com.

SpeechTek Covers
for qualified subscribers
Subscribe Now Current Issue Past Issues