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IVRs Deserve a Break

Fact: Interactive voice response (IVR) systems handle anywhere from 10% to over 90% of incoming calls in contact centers that use them. The variability in IVR containment rates is interesting and worth exploring, as is the fact that more than an estimated 60% of contact centers use and depend on these solutions. Contact center managers around the world would not be able to handle calls within their prescribed service level if their IVRs failed. Yet little investment is made in improving IVR effectiveness. It just doesn’t make sense.

IVR solutions are almost universally disliked by customers. Most are accustomed to them and have figured out how to rapidly access the information they need or find their way to a live agent. As effective as IVRs are in their current state, can you imagine what creative managers could accomplish if they invested a little time and effort in enhancing them? The numbers are compelling. If the IVR containment rate were increased by as little as 2% in a contact center that handles 100,000 calls per day and already has a 40% automation rate, it could save an extra $12k per day or $240k per month, assuming a cost per call of $6.00.

The Problem with IVRs

The underlying issue is that IVRs are poorly managed and not kept up to date. Too many use old and dated scripts and voice user interfaces (VUIs) that were probably not highly effective when they were first introduced. A surprising number of contact centers have not reviewed or revamped their IVR applications in more than 3 years. Generally, senior management does not want to spend money when the IVR is fine. But updating an IVR application and taking advantage of enhancements in speech recognition technology could be one of the most cost effective investments any contact center could make. This shouldn’t be a one-time event; IVR performance should be assessed and the underlying application enhanced on an ongoing basis.

Look for Common Issues

Most IVR solutions face similar challenges, ranging from outdated options to timing problems. Here is a list of common issues that can be surfaced and resolved with a relatively small investment in an IVR analytics solution:

  1. Outdated options
  2. Wrong options
  3. Not enough options
  4. Poorly designed, confusing options
  5. Using the IVR takes too much effort
  6. Requesting multiple levels of verification when one would suffice
  7. Asking for verification data that few people have available when they call
  8. Asking for unnecessary data that users will not be willing to enter
  9. Using the wrong speech patterns and syntax
  10. Asking questions the wrong way
  11. Using directed speech recognition when the application requires a natural language processing application
  12. Requiring callers to answer with specific words
  13. Not supporting multiple languages
  14. Making it difficult for customers to reach agents
  15. When a call is transferred, not communicating with agents about what the caller already did in the IVR

Invest in Your IVR

An emerging group of analytical solutions is targeted at identifying sub-optimal IVR and contact center performance. Although the abilities of these solutions vary, all of them can optimize IVRs by finding ways to improve how customers interact with the IVR (including analyzing recorded audio of customers in the IVR). Some of these solutions go beyond, identifying opportunities to improve the handling of any contact center interaction channel, including live agent support, Web self-service, SMS, social media, etc. All of them map the customer journey, from initial contact through hang-up, so that businesses can analyze the transaction end-to-end and identify performance and customer satisfaction issues. (The technologies for this include recording, transcription, speech analytics and text analytics.)

The three best-known competitors, BBN Avoke, ClickFox and Nuance, can automate the process and provide feedback about sub-optimal IVR performance on an ongoing basis. Firms like DMG Consulting can perform a similar manual analysis of IVR and agent performance.

Final Thoughts

Customers have been trained to hate IVRs. However, many would be happy to use an IVR and bypass live agents if the applications were easier to use and had better options. Customers who have good experiences with IVRs will use them again and again, and even try out new menu options. There is no longer any excuse for a poor IVR application. Speech recognition technology is good, and there are tools and services available to assist in identifying system issues. It will cost some money to fix your IVR, but the long-term benefits to customer satisfaction and your bottom line far exceed the investment.


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Ask the Experts

What is the impact of introducing self-service applications on call center agents? Does it impact the profiles, average handle time, number of calls handled, etc?

Introducing self-service applications into a contact center has a significant impact on agents. The impact varies based on many factors, including whether the self-service application is an interactive voice response (IVR) system or a Web-self service environment.

The primary purpose of self-service solutions is to displace as many calls as possible from reaching agents. The idea is to use less expensive self-service systems to handle all calls that do not require the cognitive capabilities of human beings. In a properly designed self-service environment, the organization identifies the tasks that customers indicate they are willing to perform themselves in an IVR or website. (While some of the tasks are the same for IVR and websites, customers are generally able and willing to do much more on a website.) Be careful not to fall into the classic trap of automating tasks that your organization wants customers to do for themselves, instead of what customers are willing to do.

Assuming that the right options/tasks are included in the IVR and/or website and the self-service functionality is easy for customers to use, the composition of calls reaching agents will change once these solutions are implemented. (It will take time for customers to become accustomed to using the self-service application, so dramatic change will not occur overnight.).

When an IVR is first implemented, a surprising result is that the volume of calls arriving to the contact center often increases. While the total volume is likely to go up, the number of calls reaching agents starts to decrease. IVR systems are great at handling information requests, such as “What is my balance?” and even some simple transactions, like requesting document copies or refunds. More sophisticated environments may use the IVR to make personalized offers to customers, such as credit line increases. The self-service options offered to customers vary based on customer willingness to use the automation and the type of technology involved; speech-enabled IVRs are much more flexible than touch-tone-based IVR solutions. Customer service websites can be much more transactional than IVRs and often include trouble ticket environments, searchable knowledge bases and many other types of activities that are not practical on an IVR.

When IVRs are implemented and customers become acclimated to the application, the system will begin to handle an increasing volume of basic, simple calls. As a result, the calls reaching agents will often be more challenging and take longer. While these calls have always reached the agents in the past, they were offset by inquiries that were simple and took a small amount of time. Therefore, one impact of adding self-service is that agents’ average handle time will initially increase and number of calls that they handle during the day may decrease…
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DMG Consulting LLC is a leading independent research, advisory and consulting firm specializing in unified communications, contact centers, back-office and real-time analytics. Learn more at www.dmgconsult.com.