Transform the Customer Experience with IVR Best Practices

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More and more, voice is used to interact with computers. Today, you can dictate written documents, turn spoken words into text messages, and even use your voice to command your smartphone. Despite these advances, consumer sentiment remains overwhelmingly negative toward interactive voice response (IVR) systems. In fact, there is a general dissatisfaction and largely negative perception of IVR systems, especially when it comes to actual usability and their ability to help callers get things done.

An increasing number of customer service departments understand how frustrating the IVR process can be and are making improvements so that they can deliver superior automated customer service experiences. Today, a number of IVR systems use highly sophisticated voice recognition technology with impressive accuracy, even in noisy environments or over a weak cellular connection. Many companies have improved their call flow designs, offering self-service first and adding marketing only where appropriate. And many systems today provide the universal option to press zero and transfer to an associate at any time. However, even with these recent improvements, customers still seem to put up a psychological barrier when it comes to talking to a machine rather than a person.

Why do customers love to hate IVR systems? In an attempt to help companies engineer superior IVR systems, eLoyalty, the technology division of TeleTech, launched an in-depth survey to explore customers' attitudes toward IVRs.

The research team, headed by Georgios Tserdanelis, compiled a list of questions to determine not only what people dislike about these systems, but also what it is they really like about them. With that, eLoyalty created an online survey to collect open-form and multiple-choice responses from more than 200 participants.

The Results

IVR systems are one type of service automation that customers love to hate, but the truth is, it's really a love-hate relationship. Based on our findings, most customers dislike using IVRs, but appreciate them when the application provides clear, concise, and quick access to the information they need. The survey results highlight the following best practices for developing and delivering superior IVR customer experiences:

1. Audio prompting, upfront messages, and speech recognition are three key areas that heavily shape the customer experience. Use caution with these approaches, and invest in sophisticated technology to ensure success.

2. Allow customers to use their channel of choice. IVR systems should be flexible and provide options for callers to either speak their responses to questions or use the touchtone keypad to type them. The best IVR systems accommodate the idiosyncrasies of different social and demographic characteristics of the customer group, industry, or business, and do not advertise self-service Web sites unless they offer more information or help callers avoid long queue times.

3. Customers understand why businesses use IVRs, so leverage these technologies for cost efficiency. But don't forget to invest in upgrades that enhance the quality of service interactions. These will pay off in the end with increases in customer loyalty.

4. The option of bypassing the system and speaking with a human is the single most important influence of the IVR customer experience. Always provide the option to speak with an associate.

5. Although long wait times are never recommended, don't sweat 10-minute holding times. Call resolution is a bigger influencer of customer satisfaction than wait times.

The next big thing in IVR technology will be connecting IVR systems to customer management data, allowing for more intelligent service with such background information as customer calling history, channel preference, and what customers were doing when they requested service. For now, though, transforming public opinion about IVRs will need to start with a simple customer-centric approach. IVR systems still have a long way to go before they will be considered the popular customer asset that many Web or mobile applications are today; however, it is a realistic expectation when these systems are designed with the customer in mind.

Vicki Broman is the manager of the eLoyalty voice user interface designer team at TeleTech. Mark Eichten is director of the company's eLoyalty speech solutions team.

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