Battle of the IVR Designs: Conversational Versus Phone Trees

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ongoing basis.

That doesn't mean the little guys can't play in the same sandbox as the big ones. Skrbina maintains that some of the smaller players can get into the conversational design game. "For medium- to large-size businesses, it's a no-brainer," she says. "For the smaller companies, the trend is more that if you're going to use speech, use it in a hosted model," Skrbina says. "With a hosted speech model, you're not going to necessarily have to procure the technology. You can actually share with other companies. In the market, we're seeing a trend toward hosted speech."

"Conversational [design] is growing, but it isn't highly prevalent yet because it's expensive to do, requires a certain degree of expertise, and is a system that must be tailored to fit your particular needs," Scholz says.

Filling Buckets

Larger companies were the first adopters of conversational design because they not only have deep pockets but also more "buckets" to fill. Pelland explains that when he is advising clients about IVR design, he first determines the number of unique destinations, or buckets, for callers.

"The number of buckets tells me if you're a candidate for natural language or not," he says. The reasoning comes back to the high cost of implementation.

Pelland says that, if a potential client had 150 destinations, for example, it would make more sense for natural language.

"For a pizza shop, it doesn't make sense, but for a company like Sears, shaving ten or fifteen seconds off an agent's time in having to transfer you all of a sudden looks really good, and the savings [in time] can offset the cost," Pelland says. "You're saving your callers from spending time on the phone having to navigate ten menus. Saving agent time plus saving caller time looks pretty good on a spreadsheet."

"Conversational design sometimes works better than having a human agent who's just a router," Dahl says. "The system can be more accurate than a person. A human has to remember 500 different places, and that's going to be hard for an operator to do accurately. If there's turnover in the call center, that's going to compound the problem."

In another scenario, there may be only three options people can choose when they call in, but there could be 100 products. In that case, the complexity of the products could make a case for conversational design.

Skrbina also suggests that large companies were first adopters of conversational design because they have the most to gain in cost savings and customer satisfaction improvements when compared to transferring calls to live agents.

Conversational Design and Virtual Agents

Consumers may feel that conversational design is somewhat clunky and hard to get used to, but thanks to virtual agents such as Siri and its challengers (e.g., Evi, Robin, and Google Now), it's becoming more familiar.

"[Customers] are beginning to know what to expect and what a service like Siri can and cannot do," Skrbina says. "They're taking in that knowledge without really understanding that they're doing it and are now bringing it to the IVR. They are more effectively using conversational interfaces."

Another advantage with conversational design, Meisel says, is that a personal assistant is always consistent. "You will always get the same answer [and] it will always handle things by company policy, so you sort of have the perfect agent that can keep improving."

Is Conversational Design Right for You?

With this information in mind, how do you know if you should stay with your phone tree IVR or move up to a conversational system that will play not only into your bottom line, but also into customer satisfaction, which, of course, also plays into your bottom line? One caveat: If you decide to go the conversational route, beware that while the technology looks promising, not every painter is Picasso.

"I think people take shortcuts," Pelland says. "This is like a high-performance engine. You need to treat it right and take care of it."

The number one step, experts say, is to examine your objectives to determine the complexity of your system.

"If you find your phone tree getting three or four levels deep, then you're forced to say, 'If you want these options repeated, press five,'" Meisel says. "Then you're in trouble. You're probably not creating a good experience, and you'll have an angry 

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