IVAs Can Remake the Self-Service Landscape

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A remarkable thing is happening in the realm of customer service: After years of rejecting self-service, customers are changing their tune. Consumers of all ages are showing a preference for self-service solutions over talking to agents or using chat boxes, provided they do their jobs well. They haven’t changed their minds about the hundreds of poorly designed interactive voice response (IVR) systems—far from it. But they prefer to help themselves as long as doing so doesn’t require too much work. 

Now it’s up to companies to accept this shift and make the necessary investments to improve self-service solutions, a development years overdue. Business and IT executives have been unwilling to upgrade self-service solutions, despite their inadequacies, due to higher priorities, and they might continue to be satisfied with current IVR utilization rates, which range from 20 percent to 70 percent. But here’s the catch: Just a small improvement in utilization rates can improve the customer experience and net millions in savings. For example, if the cost of an agent-handled call is $5, a 2 percent increase in IVR utilization for a business that receives 1 million calls per month represents a savings of $100,000 per month, or $1.2 million per year.

The Latest (and Greatest) in Self-Service: IVAs

Given consumers’ changing attitudes toward self-service and the arrival of more accurate speech recognition, it’s the right time for companies to update their self-service strategies by upgrading their IVRs, and that means embracing intelligent virtual agents (IVAs). Despite vendor claims, IVAs are not fully artificial intelligence–enabled, but they do use natural language understanding (NLU) and machine learning to offer a new generation of conversational concierge-type service. Structured, menu-driven options, long hated by consumers, are being replaced by self-service systems that ask consumers “How can I help?” No system can answer or address every question, but it’s clear IVAs can provide much better experiences.

Strategic Direction for IVAs

The figure shows the various technologies, along with their services, that IVAs will employ to process each interaction: NLU, voice biometrics, predictive analytics, visual IVR, omnichannel surveying, interaction analytics (speech and text analytics), customer journey analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, computer telephony integration (CTI), and more. IVAs will automatically verify callers, eliminating the need for frustrating and costly identification and authentication processes. They will allow customers to ask questions in their own words and personalize interactions. They will support omnichannel environments so customers can start in one channel and move seamlessly to another. And IVAs will use machine learning to continuously improve their accuracy and effectiveness over time. 

Vendors that offer IVAs now have to figure out how to deliver these solutions cost-effectively and identify best practices. Most IVAs are delivered from the cloud by vendors that are accountable for building and maintaining them. As these solutions mature, vendors will build development environments that allow enterprise users to create and maintain their own solutions. The market is a few years from reaching this level of maturity, but early adopters of IVA solutions are realizing great benefits, even though they are expensive. 

IVAs and other intelligent robots will play an increasingly important role in the economy as they deliver an effective and customer-friendly self-service experience. And the need for them is great, particularly as the hundreds of old and outdated IVR solutions in use become long overdue for a major overhaul. x

Donna Fluss (donna.fluss@dmgconsult.com) is the president of DMG Consulting, a provider of contact center, analytics, and back-office market research and consulting.

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