Eleven Tips to Improve IVR Effectiveness

There's been a lot of negative press recently about poorly designed touchtone and speech-enabled interactive voice response (IVR) systems. I'm sorry to say that most of the problems that I've heard, read about, or personally experienced are real. To make matters worse, the situation is inexcusable because the underlying technology that powers these applications is very flexible and can do significantly more than what it is being used for today. Poor implementations are giving these systems a bad reputation, as has long been the case.

I was involved in building some of the early IVR applications—formerly known as voice response units (VRUs). Debates ensued with management about forcing callers to use the IVR. I lobbied for a customer first approach, where each customer could opt into the IVR and have access to the self-service option only after taking action to get into the system. Management was concerned that we would end up with more customers going to agents if we didn't force customers into the IVR. (I was allowed to test both options and we found that the percent of calls handled by the IVR was as high either way.) Nevertheless, I lost the battle and all callers were compelled to use the IVR.

This was not good service then and isn't now, plus, it does not increase the IVR utilization rate. Customers who do not like self-service will find a way to reach agents, no matter how difficult companies make it for them. Far too often customers have no other choice but to use IVRs, resulting in customer dissatisfaction that negatively impacts the company. The good news, though, is that there are now standard ways out of most IVR applications, many of which have been published.

The list that's making its way around the country is a good start. It provides the agent default keys for many of the most widely used IVRs. For a speech-enabled IVR, the easiest way out is to request an agent, although you may have to repeat the word "agent" as many as three times. If this does not work, you could try uttering one of the nasty words that are not socially acceptable. This approach generally gets customers out of the automated loop to an agent—just be careful of who hears you.

There are many proven IVR best practices that improve customer satisfaction and increase the IVR utilization rate, but they are still not widely used because of corporate short sightedness and fundamental misunderstanding of customers. Many companies mistakenly believe that these guidelines will divert more calls to agents and therefore cost more. I disagree and recommend that companies invest in these best practices as quickly as possible. The result will be improved customer satisfaction and loyalty without an increase in the volume of calls to agents.

Most companies fail to realize that a well-designed IVR actually promotes willingness to use the system. A case-in-point is a customer who utilizes an IVR to make a payment and is satisfied with the convenience and ease of use. It's highly probable that this customer will not only utilize the IVR to make subsequent payments, but because of the good experience will be amenable to trying out additional IVR options. (Unfortunately, the reverse is also true, as one bad experience will drive customers to select an agent up front to avoid getting stuck in the IVR maze.)

There are three high-level issues that must be addressed before companies can fix their IVRs:

1. Accept that the IVR was designed to maximize automation, not to provide an outstanding customer experience, and that many customers literally hate the IVR. If you do not accept that there is room to improve your IVR application, there will be little value in the remaining recommendations.

2. Accept that you can no longer get away with a poorly designed IVR. If your company is already on the list of poorly designed IVRs, it's time to take action. Conversely, just because no one has put your company on the list, it doesn't mean that your IVR isn't hated or deliberately avoided.

3. Accept that fixing the problems may be costly in the short term; however, it will save money and improve customer satisfaction in the long term. Be sure that you have an ongoing budget to maintain and enhance your IVR application.

There are many who believe that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." But if you've made it very difficult for your callers to reach agents, your system is broken. If your IVR makes customers do too much work, such as entering a 12- to 18-digit account number and then repeating it to an agent, your IVR is broken. If your company hasn't analyzed your IVR and rewritten your script during the past three to five years, there is a great deal of room for improvement. And, if your IVR is still touchtone or your company implemented speech recognition by adding this capability to an existing touchtone script, your application is not optimized and can perform significantly better.

Here are the best practices that all companies should implement immediately to improve their IVR effectiveness and customer satisfaction:

1. Do not lock customers into the IVR. Make it easy for customers to access agents. (In informal studies of poorly designed self-service IVRs, this is the top complaint.)

2. Do not ask customers to repeat their account data. If your self-service application asks for an account number, transfer the data to an agent along with the call. This may require investment in computer telephony integration (CTI) software, but it will reduce average handle time and improve customer satisfaction.

3. Do not provide customers with a long list of options. Limit the number of options to three or four, even if this means that you can't get them all on your IVR. Too many options are confusing for customers, who don't remember all of them anyway.

4. Limit nesting to two and at most three levels within an application. Again, this may mean that your company won't be able to offer all options, but it increases the chances that the options you give will be used. Given too many choices, people will forget the earliest ones, causing them to default to agents and defeating your self-service goals.

5. Do not assign a programmer to design your IVR script. Use a script writing specialist who understands your customers' needs and wants and knows how to best present options to your customers.

6. Redesign your script when implementing speech recognition technology. Speech recognition is a much more friendly and flexible user interface than a touchtone application. When adding speech recognition, take the opportunity to rewrite the application to make it easier to use. (It is important to continue to provide an option for customers who prefer to use touchtone prompts.)

7. Do not build your script based only on corporate priorities; develop it based on an assessment of customer needs and wants. Your customers do not care about the options and activities you'd like them to perform and will opt out if the choices you offer do not meet their needs.

8. Do not implement new scripts without first testing them on your users. It's important to continuously enhance and improve the performance of your system, but make sure that customers are satisfied with changes before fully rolling them out. (It's easier and less costly to test than to remove functionality and apologize to the public.)

9. After implementing new functionality, monitor these features carefully to determine if customers find them satisfactory. It generally takes time before new functionality is widely adopted, but it quickly becomes clear when customers are flatly rejecting a new feature.

10. Set up a schedule for reviewing and enhancing your IVR script on an ongoing basis. Just as you have to invest in agent training and retraining, expect to make regular adjustments to your IVR. Changing customer preferences must be addressed in the IVR script.

11. Brand your IVR persona and voice and review them every nine to 12 months. Eenterprises should identify their most effective agent and then try to emulate her performance on the IVR. This takes a great deal of time, but is worth the benefits.

Although these best practices will come with a short-term price tag, they will significantly improve the overall performance and financial benefits of your IVR self-service environment. IVRs play a very important role by handling a large percentage of calls that do not require human assistance. It's worth the effort to enhance the performance of your company's IVR application and increase your customers' satisfaction.

Donna Fluss is the principal of DMG Consulting LLC, which specializes in delivering customer-focused business strategy, operations, and technology services for Global 2000 and emerging companies. She is the author of "The Real-Time Contact Center," a 2006 Speech Analytics Market Report, and the annual "Quality Management/Liability Recording Product and Market Report." Contact her at donna.fluss@dmgconsult.com.

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