The 2015 State of the Speech Technology Industry: Speech Self-Service

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The death of the interactive voice response (IVR) system has been greatly exaggerated. While people are increasingly using other channels to communicate and self-serve—the Web and mobile devices, for instance—the IVR remains a tried-and-true workhorse solution.

"In spite of the growing use of text, chat, and Web sites for support, inbound call volumes continue to grow," wrote Dan Miller, founder and lead analyst at Opus Research, in a 2014 report. "Outbound activity, thanks to additional features and functions for IVRs (or their media service-based successors), is finding new life."

"In some ways, IVR is a lot like being a piano mover," noted Jeff Campbell, vice president of the Americas for global government affairs at Cisco, in a blog. "IVR is a mature, reliable technology that's often used to provide automated self-service to callers as a front end to a contact center. IVR has [a] minimal 'wow' factor, and in fact it's occasionally derided (typically due to bad application design). Yet more businesses are using it now than ever, because IVR is still one of the most cost-effective ways to provide customer service."

According to a [24]7 study, approximately 50 percent of the more than 2,000 respondents indicated that they made initial contact with companies over the phone—either a smartphone or a landline. A 2014 survey from Nuance Communications found that even with an array of digital channels, 75 percent of respondents stated they have achieved the best results from companies by using the phone.

IVR Challenges

While these numbers are encouraging, most IVR users still grouse about the myriad menus they are forced to navigate. The problem remains, in large part, not due to a lack of innovation, but to a lag in implementation. Industry watchers say that there is still a reluctance to spend money in the IVR.

"The quality of the technology is excellent, but a lot of issues are on the end-user side," says Donna Fluss, founder and president of DMG Consulting. "The weakness in the market remains the application of the technology in scripts or voice user interfaces."

Fluss says that there are too many companies that built IVRs 10 or 15 years ago, or even earlier, that have never overhauled them. Companies might think that they don't have to upgrade IVR solutions, basing that on the "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" mentality.

"CFOs look at numbers and say, 'Why should I make an investment in upgrading the technology, the platform, or the script? This is good enough and I've got other things that need new investments.' That's a huge mistake for organizations," Fluss says.

A related trend is that organizations need to look at the IVR as a component of the overall customer journey instead of a standalone system to keep calls from coming into their operating environment. "This is again due to innovation in the world of IVR over the [past] five years—there's a lot of things that organizations can do today if they rethink how they're using the IVR," Fluss adds.

Enterprises are beginning to show more interest in investing in IVR technologies, but change has been slow. "Companies are starting to get it and align the enterprise and service goals and drive a new level of investment,” Fluss says. “But IVRs and self-service systems are still going to be at the bottom of the barrel of investments."

Don't Fear Multichannel

While the emergence of newer channels may seem to threaten the popularity of the IVR, analysts maintain that all technologies can not only play well together but also support each other.

"For over thirty years, the IVR has been used primarily in the enterprise for call routing and call deflection," said Daniel Hong, senior director of marketing at [24]7, in a statement. "However, as we roll out the tape over the next year and beyond, IVR will have more of a digital DNA as companies create linkages for experiences that span multiple channels. Tighter integration between IVR and mobile apps, chat, SMS, and visual experiences that render multimodal interactions will become more common. IVR will begin transforming from interactive voice response to interactive multimedia response."

In a 2014 Opus Research report, Miller pointed to the increasing use of the smartphone, which can be a conduit to every channel and which has revived the IVR. "The ascent of the smartphone has propelled IVR technology well beyond the roles of simple call deflection or agent avoidance," he wrote. "IVRs are entering a new world of choice and customer empowerment. Far from forcing its last gasp, the smartphone has breathed new life into each enterprise's IVR and voice app infrastructure, augmenting resources that bring both visual and voice [capabilities] into each customer's critical path."

Embracing Change in the IVR

Although some end users may be slow to marry other channels to the IVR, more innovative companies are adopting cutting-edge solutions from vendors that promise cost savings and greater customer retention. "Cloud, omnichannel, and mobility are revitalizing the interactive voice response market," wrote Gartner analysts Jay Lassman and Bern Elliot in a 2014 report. "Leading vendors are focused on these trends by enhancing voice portals and the customer self-service experience, as well as providing analytics that help IT leaders optimize IVR investments."

In 2014, [24]7 released [24]7 Speech, which integrates natural language, prediction, and omnichannel experience design in a cloud-based speech self-service solution. It can be used to bridge gaps in the customer journey, and it "embraces the digitization that the smartphone offers," said Kathy Juve, chief marketing officer at [24]7, in an email to Speech Technology magazine. The speech technology allows companies to transition to the "new reality," where contextual, simplified, and faster customer journeys are the norm.

"Unlike legacy IVRs that are constrained by what customers say, [24]7 Speech also considers who they are, what they did on the Web or in mobile apps, and what they tried before calling the 800 number," Juve stated. "By gleaning insights from the customer's activities in other channels, devices, and sessions, the solution predicts in real time why the customer is calling and, in turn, provides a more relevant and personalized IVR experience."

To further mobile channel integration, in late 2014, Aspect released Aspect Mobility, a suite for mobile contact centers that has eight mobile customer experience solutions on the Voxeo CXP platform. (Aspect acquired Voxeo in 2013.) The Aspect Mobility suite includes Aspect Visual IVR, Aspect Proactive Mobile, Aspect Callback Mobile, and Aspect In-Queue Self-Service.

"Most mobile apps lack integration with customer care infrastructure, forcing customers to repeat themselves when moving from mobile to another channel," said Tobias Goebel, director of mobile strategy, at Aspect, in a statement. "Companies are failing to address the need for a streamlined experience that takes the context from a mobile interaction seamlessly into the next [interaction] on the channels and devices consumers use most."

The Cloud Continues to Reign

Deploying cloud-based solutions for self-service in the contact center is nothing new. DMG research found that, by 2009, 55 percent of companies were already in the cloud. The cloud-based contact center market is expected to grow from $4.15 billion in 2014 to $10.9 billion by 2019, which represents a 21.3 percent growth rate over this period.

"The introduction and deployment of cloud IVR combined with a growing interest in omnichannel, multimodal applications that run equally well on desktop and mobile are injecting new life into the IVR market, and generating new self-service solutions," Lassman and Elliot stated.

"Cloud, omnichannel, and mobility are revitalizing the...market. Leading vendors are focused on these trends by enhancing voice portals and the customer self-service experience, as well as providing analytics that help IT leaders optimize IVR investments," they said.

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