Voice Self-Service Has Become More Popular—and It’s About to Get Much Better

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For decades, interactive voice response (IVR) systems, including those that were speech-enabled, were greatly disliked by users, even as adoption continued to grow. Some might say adoption grew because live agent support wasn’t much better and that using an IVR didn’t require waiting on hold, so it became a convenient habit. Either way, during the past four decades, touch-tone and/or speech-based IVRs have become the most common form of customer self-service, second only to the web. This doesn’t mean that people like it, but they use it, however begrudgingly.

In fact, something bizarre happened on the way to the new decade: The most hated form of customer service has become one of the most preferred. What makes this so strange is that the quality of the IVR applications offered by many enterprises has not improved substantially in the past five to 10 years, even as the underlying technology has been greatly enhanced.

There has been great innovation in voice self-service engines, as reflected by the offerings from Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft. Some of the biggest companies have come to market with their own speech engines as they compete to dominate the self-service and artificial intelligence (AI) landscapes. The winners are going to be companies that enable their customers to interact conversationally with them without having to actually speak to a live agent. This sounds a bit creepy, but it is a foregone conclusion. It doesn’t mean that today’s self-service solutions are able to converse like humans, but this is where future applications are headed, and it’s the large consumer-oriented companies that are paving the way.

The Business Opportunity

It’s time for businesses to prepare for this future, and the way to get there is by replacing their old and outdated IVRs with newer intelligent virtual agent (IVA) solutions. Even better, as IVAs are channel-independent, companies have an opportunity to accomplish something they should have done 30 years ago: Using the same underlying technology, they can build self-service capabilities and then make them available in many channels, including websites, voice self-service systems, chat and messaging applications, email, and more. And IVA technology is the way to get there.

It takes both science and art to design and build an effective self-service environment. Whereas in the past a great deal of art was required to make up for the immaturity of the science, the pendulum has swung, and now the science is positioned to enable a new generation of self-service solutions. The catch, and there always seems to be one, is that most companies are not yet making the investments that vendors are hoping for and are depending on to drive the advancements in these AI-based applications. So the self-service market is on the cusp of great innovation but in a holding pattern for now, even as customers are demanding enhanced self-service capabilities.

Digital Transformation Benefits

It’s either funny or disappointing that in many companies, the contact center and service organizations are not always included in the initial phases of enterprise digital transformation—these departments are the ones that should be leading the way, based on the volume of customer interactions. Companies that want to realize a solid return on investment (ROI) should prioritize digital transformation initiatives in their contact centers, as there is a great deal that can be further automated via self-service—even if 90 percent to 95 percent of voice calls are already handled by an IVR solution—by applying the new generation of AI-oriented speech technologies along with robotic process automation.

Chief financial officers too often reject requests for investment funds to enhance, or at this point redo, their self-service solutions, claiming that what they have is good enough. This resistance is the case even when a 1 percent or 2 percent increase in the use of self-service equates to anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars in enterprise savings, because CFOs want to allocate funds to what they consider to be newer and more “transformative” initiatives.

Yet investments in AI-based speech applications, like the ones being applied in the new generation of omnichannel IVA solutions, can be potential game changers for enterprises. When accompanied by the right best practices, these solutions are positioned to help companies succeed in their digital transformations while enhancing the customer experience, as improvements in self-service capabilities are what many of their customers want. 

Donna Fluss (donna.fluss@dmgconsult.com) is the president of DMG Consulting, a provider of contact center, analytics, and back-office market research and consulting.

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