IVR Relinquishes the Gatekeeper Role

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Despite more than 20 years of deployments and widespread efforts to improve the self-service capabilities of IVR systems, speech self-service is too often viewed as the gatekeeper to the real help: the customer service representative (CSR). Proactive outbound, improved access to customer data, higher quality text-to-speech output, better application development, and improved speech recognition still haven't closed the gap between automation and live assistance. IVRs aren't mind readers, and they don't know when they cannot help. So, if a caller's intent is unclear, the application is forced to re-prompt the caller or transfer him to an agent, causing customer dissatisfaction and further reluctance to use self-service.

Interactions (Franklin, Mass.) has taken a novel approach to increasing the sophistication and effectiveness of IVR applications by unobtrusively blending human interaction with speech self-service to improve the customer experience, while continually improving the IVR application. Unlike some earlier approaches, which used agents to back up the IVR by listening and intervening when a caller experience started to degrade, interaction agents are integral to the application. The company calls these agents Interaction Analysts, and their job is to listen to snippets of calls to determine caller intent and provide the IVR engine with data that is processed using business rules to drive an action, such as a routing destination, request for information, or additional prompts.

Interactions' hosted solution uses a speech recognition front-end to the caller and adds a proxy between the caller and the speech engine. So when something is not recognized, instead of playing a prompt asking the caller to clarify or repeat what he had said, the application reaches out to an Interactions Analyst for an answer and then plays the answer back to the caller, and so on, without the agent ever speaking to the caller.

Now, you might ask, why would you involve an agent intermittently in an IVR application? Isn't that costly? Doesn't that defeat the purpose? Wouldn't that burn out the agent? It is a novel approach, but it works with surprising benefits.

This hosted service is not your classic contact center. Instead, the agent is playing the role of speech recognition. The system dynamically goes between ASR and the agent on a prompt-by-prompt basis as needed, complementing each other. Unlike traditional agents, Interaction Analysts hear only snippets of calls, never the entire call. Their job is to derive the intent of individual portions of calls to feed an answer to the application, not interact with and complete customer calls.

Interaction Analysts are measured and rewarded based on their speed and accuracy rather than other common agent metrics, such as revenue per call or customer satisfaction. The hosted service employs an inline quality assurance and incentive system that monitors a portion of calls unknown to an Interactions agent. The service takes a call snippet, gets an answer quickly, and gets scored consistently, along with other agents, much like a game.

As a result, Interactions can draw from a different demographic than that which is normally found in a contact center, such as college students accustomed to playing video games. Interaction Analysts aren't measured and managed on interacting with the caller or complex problem solving. Further, training on the system is minimal, so training costs are low and finding new agents is far less competitive and costly than it is in traditional contact centers.

With the agent and IVR working in tandem, there is no either-or call scenario. The IVR is not the gatekeeper to a human, and the human is not the stop of last resort for the caller. The results are truly high call-containment rates, greater customer satisfaction, and lower costs. And the contact center does not have to choose between two typical paths: lower customer satisfaction with higher self-service rates or higher costs through the use of agents. It brings the best of both together in a continual improvement loop. But if the need arises, a call could be transferred to a traditional contact center group as well.

Nancy Jamison is principal at Jamison Consulting. She can be reached at nsj@jamisons.com or at www.jamison-consulting.com.

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