The Shift to Intelligent IVR

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Interactive voice response (IVR) is the grandfather of speech technology and continues to be the most widely deployed technology for customer self-services today. The disruptive situation that’s got everyone in the industry buzzing is the news that the big guys (Google, Apple, and Microsoft and the like) are making their application programming interfaces (APIs) available to developers. The magnitude of the impact that this is having, and will have, to the industry is hard to fathom.

Two years ago I would have told my customers that they would never be able to afford a truly natural language (NL) customer service offering – due to the multi-million dollar investment required to build the NL platform. The availability of the Google speech platform as a service levels the playing field by taking what used to be cost prohibitive and providing developers with programmatic access to a speech platform already deployed on more than 400 million devices today.

Publicly available APIs are not new of course – and the results of opening the backdoor have been wildly successful in the past. Two of my favorite examples are IBM Watson, the question-answer computing system built with natural language. IBM made its endless hours of work and investment available to developers to leverage and Watson suddenly became the foundation for applications built by developers around the globe. If you are wondering why companies like IBM decide to share their investment think of Apple’s investment in the iPhone and the opportunities they would have missed had they not made their phones able to accommodate apps by opening up the API for iPhones.

Now that natural language is within reach of virtually any application it has become the input mode of choice. The keyboard is passé and dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) signaling is decidedly antiquated. But there is a resurgence and buzz around speech technology and artificial intelligence (AI) in home and business products. Another benefit of these publicly available APIs is speed to market. IVR is adapting to a more natural conversation, which is easy to use, predictive, and interactive. This shift provides an opportunity for the resurgence of IVR software. So how do we harness IVR and improve it for AI, using the power of the voice?

With the increased use of AI, organizations are able to personalize customer satisfaction by increasing self-service and have human agents handle more complex transactions. AI technology is proactive and predictive by enabling customers to express their needs and provide a solution that is simple and immediate. Callers are greeted by a friendly welcome of, “How can I help you?” This is an open-ended question where the caller answers in a natural way – the opposite of traditional IVR. AI applications are being used in every industry, with organizations constantly monitoring and optimizing the technology to adapt to conditions and the needs of the users.

As a sidenote, with voice being the trendy input mode, the chatbot is a natural segue for this continuing trend. The chatbot is designed to interact with human beings using artificial intelligence to process language. Customer service is one of the areas that can reap the total benefits of using chatbot technology since customers prefer not to speak to a live agent. The foundation to the chatbot’s success is IVR. While we know IVR to be static, we can extend the IVR solution to make it useful in a nonlinear dialogue by harnessing the power of AI and chatbots.

Developers are now improving on established IVR technology. For example, by taking the call mapping of traditional IVR and creating deeper, more intelligent call paths or mapping options, resulting in a more satisfactory experience for the customer. This is the predictive and intuitive nature of AI. Customers’ needs are being predicted and companies are able to anticipate and provide the caller with options, minimizing frustration. Additionally, callers are able to express their needs in an unstructured manner and there is no need for the customer to understand the complexities of the system, pick options and get lost in a menu maze. This breakthrough in self-service is dramatically changing current business models while providing the caller with control, reducing caller frustration and increasing efficiency and customer satisfaction. This frictionless customer experience is the blending of IVR and AI solutions, resulting in intelligent voice response.

So what’s the future of self-service? The acronym stays the same (IVR) – but the meaning is more powerful (intelligent voice response). Tasks as simple as paying a utility bill are now met with human-like dialogue between consumer and machine, with an open-ended question such as “How may I help you?” AI will drive the conversation with unstructured, free speech rather than a static menu system to navigate and will over time learn the preferences of the consumer. The dramatic change from a passive static IVR to an intelligent tool that provides control back to the caller, enhances caller intent, reduces caller frustration, and increases efficiency--this is the future of intelligent IVR.

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