The 2016 State of the Speech Technology Industry: Interactive Voice Response

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Interactive voice response (IVR) units have been streamlining call processing since the 1970s. With new digital channels, such as social media, emerging, one might think that the IVR is ready to collect its gold watch and head off to retirement. One would be wrong: "The IVR is like the cat with nine lives, and vendors breathed new life into these systems in 2015," says Donna Fluss, founder and president of DMG Consulting.

IVRs have been under siege for a couple of reasons, starting with ease-of-use issues. Users often grouse about the myriad of menus they must navigate before resolving their issue.

Aspect Software, AT&T, Avaya, Cisco Systems, Convergys, Database Systems, Dialogic, Enghouse Systems, Genesys, IBM, Mitel Networks, Nuance Communications, The Plum Group, Verizon Communications, and West have been making progress in improving their solutions' responsiveness. "Recently, IVRs have become more intelligent and more conversational," states Gregory Pal, vice president of marketing and strategy and business development for the Enterprise Division at Nuance Communications.

A Simple, Cost-Effective Step

Regular maintenance is a simple and inexpensive step that businesses can take to enhance IVR system performance. "Once a company puts an IVR script in, they are slow to change them," Fluss says. That strategy is foolish. Nowadays, new releases arrive a few times a year and offer businesses new features that help streamline business processes.

However, corporations are often unwilling to invest in system enhancements because of the cost. Such thinking is shortsighted. Updating a script and offering customers more choices may increase the number of self-serving customers, which reduces call center volume. A 1 percent boost in self-service can lead to a five-figure or six-figure savings, depending on the number of agents. Many firms update their scripts after a handful of years, though Fluss recommends they do so at least once every six months.

IVR Systems Gain Intelligence

In addition to simple maintenance, the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) features is enhancing IVR interactions. Traditionally, these systems offered users a handful of "Yes" or "No" prompts. Consequently, time and effort were required before the customer saw any progress on his inquiry.

AI enables vendors to deploy more complex scripts. With a greater number of options, consumers spend less time sifting through different voice prompts. In other cases, AI enables a wider range of input to be analyzed. Rather than press a button or say "Yes" or "No," customers enter free-form responses. The systems have become more adept at putting individuals' words into context. The solutions have also become better at recognizing and differentiating speech permutations; for instance, a soda may be called pop, tonic, or Coke, depending on where one resides. Once the systems recognize context, they are better able to understand customers' problems and solve their issues.

Finally, AI is leading to reductions in staffing costs. "We are seeing movement to virtual agents," says Brian Spraetz, marketing team lead at Interactive Intelligence. In that scenario, IVR systems handle more of an interaction before handing it to an agent; ideally, the system resolves the issue completely.

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