How to Know When Your Speech System Is Too Old

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An old interactive voice response system can be a 450-pound albatross around the neck of an enterprise. An IVR is the face—or at least the voice—of a company when customers need to interact. How they fare in that process may weigh heavily on how much business they care to conduct with a company or whether they would like to have a relationship at all. As IVRs age, particularly if they’re not maintained, they show signs of degradation: They slow down and jitter and move callers through webs of seemingly endless call trees. 

At some point, IVRs begin to cost their businesses more to maintain than to replace. Usually by that point, the company has lost some customers because of its poor IVR representation. Exactly when to refresh, however, can be tricky. IVRs can be very expensive and daunting to replace—they’re often just one big piece in a larger, co-dependent customer relationship ecosystem. How, then, do you decide?

First, examine what happens when a system has been in place for too long without a refresh. One of the first indicators of an older IVR having soured past its prime is customer satisfaction. Callers are among the first to know when an IVR isn’t working right. Jaded from years of encounters with frustrating systems, they know to start mashing zero or repeatedly chanting (if not screaming) “agent, agent, agent” into their phones at the first sign of resistance. Automation rates, thus, slide the instant something isn’t working correctly. Suffering engagement, completion, and containment rates, along with poor first-call resolution numbers and rising calling times, are big red flags.

On the hardware side, an older system—say, five to 10 years old—can slow down and frustrate callers. One possible reason for such performance degradation is hard drive thrashing. Classically, in older hard drives, delays result when the system tries to fetch a file on a drive larded with other data and the information isn’t being indexed properly. So, the clock keeps ticking. The hardware, for instance, might receive a voice utterance or a DTMF command but then hang on the information for a long period before processing it and returning a result. 

Similarly, in session initiation protocol (SIP) solutions, older hardware sometimes produces jitter. This can happen when the processor is responsible for both session management and packet management (receiving and outgoing). When the system falters, packets get fragmented and the machine produces semi-incoherent results as if it were drunk and speaking in broken phrases.

Degradation can affect software, too, with the amount that a company can expect during a year difficult to gauge because several factors play a part. The minute that an IVR goes live, strains are placed on the hardware. Like a new car accruing miles, an IVR’s ability to function optimally is gradually compromised the minute that an on-switch is flicked. This is directly tied to software. 

“I’m going to put in hundreds or thousands of hours into appreciating [an IVR’s] value but that’s going to take probably 20 percent of its life away, maybe 25 percent depending on the equipment you have,” notes Eric Tamblyn, vice president for product management for Genesys at Alcatel-Lucent.

As an IVR is tested, tuned, and optimized to the specific needs of a business, the system’s value improves. The system’s engineers refine the IVR so that it is more usable, more needs are met through automated processes, and fewer calls are transferred to live agents. However, the extra code that makes all of that happen also strains a system and taxes the hardware. Tamblyn calls this relationship among software, hardware, and the overall health of an IVR system a “vortex of depreciation/appreciation.” 

If the IVR’s coders aren’t diligent about regularly streamlining their work, modifications can produce a depreciation of quality, as opposed to value added.

“There’s a certain amount of clutter,” Tamblyn says. “Me being an IVR programmer, and going in behind the scenes and extending systems, I’ve run into all sorts of things that have been left in [IVRs].”

Often this clutter takes the form of “go to” code—lines within IVR programming that skip over part of a program or take shortcuts. Often, these are written in response to specific needs within an IVR—for example, for a new promotion, to patch around outdated menus, or to restructure menu trees as a business’s outlying structure changes. Those are all simple examples, but there might be hundreds of case-specific and complex jumps like these within a single IVR. Likewise, there may be several add-ons and extensions that bring in new functionalities or build new programs on top of old ones and spider out into a complex web that can be difficult to penetrate. If an IVR’s code is not tended to regularly, it can begin to generate redundancies or conflicts.

“I’ve seen IVRs go through a huge amount of steps because there were so many jumps from here to there to there,” Tamblyn says. “The IVR was getting delayed because it was sampling, jumping from one procedure to another and was skipping over code, and that was causing the delays because the IVR was still having to process the code. Had you just removed the code, you would have avoided the skipping, and you would have avoided the delays.”

Obviously, this means real money in a telephony environment in which a business is paying for long-distance calls by the minute, and redundant processes are straining an IVR’s hardware. More than that, it may mean more agent time, as frustrated callers opt out of automated processes and ask for agents—a much more expensive proposition. One can imagine how much of a tangle that can become in systems five or 10 years old that haven’t had the time and effort invested in them to maintain their code. In short, there is a direct ROI in keeping an IVR’s code clean and a breaking point at which not investing in maintenance begins to cost more than shelling out to have programmers comb through it. For that reason, Tamblyn recommends that old routines be cleaned up every year, if not every six months.

As for hardware, Patrick Nguyen, the chief technology officer for Voxify, suggests that an on-premises offering should expect a major infrastructure refresh every three or four years. But he adds, “On-premises client refresh cycles obviously depend on the product cycles of the underlying browsers, speech engines, etc. It’s only when there’s a major new release of those platforms that they’d need to refresh their infrastructure.”

Not making necessary changes not only gets more expensive over time, but it also can be hazardous to continuing business operations. As platforms go through major refreshes, hardware vendors often stop supporting older systems. And as components break down in systems running on hardware five to 10 years old, vendors might discover that replacement parts are no longer being made, even by third-party vendors. 

Those parts might have to be obtained from less-than-ideal sources at a significant markup. A handful of IVR vendors interviewed by Speech Technology magazine even half-murmured some vague stories about clients resorting to eBay bidding before acquiescing and overhauling their systems. Regardless of whether that speculation is true, it does highlight a potential risk. Moreover, even if you play it safe and have a closet full of untested spare parts, there’s no guarantee they will work when you need them years later.

This may mean that if you have a breakdown, your IVR may be down for a long time as you seek parts. Or, you could be forced into an overhaul when your system has gone down and your business is turning away customers. At a certain point, the money you saved by keeping an old system running is more than offset by the potential money and risk associated with ensuring continual operation.

The risks might have farther-reaching consequences in managed solutions, too, where a customer is tied to another party to respond to a hardware failure. If a hosted system’s outdated hardware fails, you must reach a manager, get the parts, and get the whole apparatus moving again. Following that logic, if a hosted manager suggests a hardware upgrade, a business should consider it seriously or risk difficulties down the line.

IVR overhauls are not just a function of swapping out aging systems, though. More often than not, businesses upgrade their software and hardware to leverage new capabilities. “If you do find you have an outdated IVR, it’s less expensive to replace than upgrade or fix it, especially if it’s been around for more than five years,” Voxify’s Nguyen says. “In the last five years, there have been big advancements in VUI [voice user interface] best practices, application development technologies, and new integration techniques that allow you to integrate applications to back-end systems and contact center infrastructures.”

Lately, enterprises have been particularly keen on IVRs that leverage unified communications (UC) capabilities. Having collected big caches of customer data for years and having expended considerable money and resources to develop great armfuls of modalities for customer engagement—from Web portals to Twitter to mobile apps—more enterprises want to leverage the fruits of their labors in the IVR space. Those enterprises seek vendors to hook up their powerful back-end data storehouses with analytical tools to provide tailored customer IVR experiences on the fly, both in automated and agent-driven contexts.

At least according to Voxeo, its business in IVRs is not being driven primarily by rip-and-replacements of older, dying-star systems but, rather, by customers seeking something smarter.

“If you have a basic IVR, it can last for a very long time,” says Dan York, director of conversations at Voxeo. “The reason they come to us is that they want to integrate their IVR with their new snazzy UC system.”

This might include integration with back-end databases; customer relationship management systems; predictive analytics solutions; business analytics solutions, such as SAP, Oracle, and IBM Cognos; or tools that would help an enterprise not only know its customers but also how they fit into its business in real time. One of the biggest reasons companies are keen on this approach is cost.

IVRs that know more about their callers can predict what they likely will want within a single utterance or, in some cases, before they even speak. For instance, let’s say you’re calling an insurance broker and you have homeowners’ insurance with that agency and recently made a claim. The broker has a smart system with an integrated back end. Based on your phone number, the IVR can guess who you are, it knows that you have homeowner’s insurance with the company, and it knows you recently filed a claim. Rather than have you sit through a bunch of prompts about boat insurance, motorcycle insurance, and so on, the IVR might simply ask, I see you’ve recently filed a homeowner’s insurance claim. Are you calling about this? and jump you to the right self-service menu or agent within a few seconds.

“It’s [about] understanding your customer, what her intentions are at that moment in the life cycle,” York explains.

Again, in a telephonic space, time means money. Faster call resolutions mean lower bills from phone calls and less strain on a system that could translate into fewer ports, fewer agents, and less hardware. Above all, though, faster, easier call resolutions translate directly into higher customer satisfaction. York says that this is particularly key in a fragile economic climate in which customers may be looking for any reason to switch providers for goods and services. 

As an example, J.D. Power and Associates released a report in March showing that the percentage of customers switching their primary banking account from one bank to another rose from 7.7 percent in 2010 to 8.7 percent in 2011. Moreover, the number of banks customers considered using rose from an average of 1.6 to 1.9 during that period, J.D. Power found. Among the most commonly provided reasons for switching were customer service–related items, such as: 

• branch convenience; 

• products and services; 

• promotional offers; and

• direct and indirect customer experiences (including past personal interactions, recommendations, and bank reputation).

Notably absent are items making reference to pricing or interest rates, despite heavy recent news coverage of both issues. This finding suggests that, for some, bank customer experience weighs more heavily on users than the money they might save, or at least that users’ awareness of it is more pronounced. Studies bear out the same thing across other industries, too.

This has big implications for the IVR because it is, in many ways, the front line in customer interaction. It’s where problems are resolved (or not) and where customers often go to begin or terminate relationships with providers.

“It’s not just about pulling out an IVR because it’s old and ugly,” says John Gengarella, chief executive officer at Voxify. “It’s because you’re thinking about the capabilities you want to have tomorrow and, by implication, the customers you would like to gain.”

Gengarella is quick to point out that while conversations about IVR refreshes often focus on the bells and whistles of new technology, the systems ultimately are only as good as the customer relationships they help build. 

“In a new IVR technology, do you have stack visibility?” he asks rhetorically. “Can you see its performance in real time? [Does your] contact center have fast access to configurable real-time reporting? [Does your contact center manager] have access to some configurable components of that application to influence its design in real time? How fast and economically can you do that?”

For Gengarella, malleability is the eminent quality an IVR should possess; the system ought to be able to bend and sway with changing market and customer demands. That’s one reason Voxify has built its solutions around a platform-agnostic middleware layer that can leverage various speech engines and platforms.

When refreshing an IVR, customers should not think of their system as “a one-time deployment,” he says.

“You have to look at the post-deployment scenario that you endure; that’s where the real expenses are in a bad set of choices,” he cautions. “So, think about visibility, flexibility, portability, future capabilities”—sage advice for any system that will be the customer-facing voice of your business.


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