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Not your grandma's Interactive Voice Response (IVR)

Customer Service Channels

You know the drill: Call a customer service hotline, listen to long series of audio prompts, pick the option that best describes the issue, and keep your fingers crossed you're directed to the appropriate agent pool or automated information that can help. That system of prompts, known as an Interactive Voice Response (IVR), has been around for decades and is ubiquitous amongst contact centers.

If executed thoughtfully, IVR can be one of the most effective ways to reduce customer effort and improve costs; why wait to talk to billing support if you're simply looking to reset a password? Unfortunately, due to poorly designed legacy systems, IVRs oftentimes feel like navigating a maze with a lot of dead ends. In fact, customers have taken to posting workarounds and shortcuts online to help people connect with a live agent more quickly.

Brands need to take note that if customers are going to that extent to bypass their IVR, then it's not exactly performing the desired function. According to a recent post from McKinsey, IVR systems are great in theory, but have a critical drawback: "People don't like them." To address this monumental issue, "companies need to rethink their design priorities and put customer experience first, [through a focus on] fast call resolution, personalization and a consistent experience across channels."

Fortunately, many IVR systems of yore are getting much-needed makeovers. Better design and smart technology are contributing to these new and improved systems that can actually serve as a source of delight for customers — while still achieving cost reduction goals.

Voice-based IVR

Over the years, call routing has remained a primary application for IVR. What has changed, however, is the IVR process with more and more companies replacing "press 1 for yes, 2 for no" with speech-recognition technology. With speech technology taking over search (think Alexa, Siri and Google Home), the pressure is on for IVRs to offer this capability.

Improvements in natural language processing (NLP) are making these virtual personal assistants better than ever, according to a study by research-based venture capital firm Loup Ventures. Over a 15-month period between April 2017 and August 2018, researchers found Google Assistant improved by 11 percentage points in terms of correctly answering questions; Siri gained 13 points and Microsoft's Cortana inched ahead by three points. "We're impressed with the speed at which the technology is advancing. Many of the issues we had just last year have been erased by improvements to natural language processing and inter-device connectivity," write the study's authors.

A key tactic for improving IVR over time is to adapt the system and decision branches to caller history. Artificial intelligence and NLP, combined with predictive analytics, "are evolving from dumb menu systems into smart 'voicebots,' capable of handling complex customer queries," according to McKinsey.

Some are calling this ‘conversational IVR’ due to the system’s ability to integrate with a virtual assistant like Alexa, "… to book flights, compare products, resolve issues or connect with a live agent when needed. This will give rise to the 'recommendation system' of the future," according to an article in Speech Technology magazine.

Visual IVR

Visual IVR, which emerged as a direct result of the proliferation of mobile apps, enables consumers to connect to customer support through similar app-like interfaces.

The biggest benefit? Rather than having to wait for a voice recording to list potential options one by one (think of the old-fashioned recordings listing movie showtimes), a visual IVR menu shows all the options at once.

While the user experience and user interface elements will likely require some heavy lifting to create, much of the traditional IVR foundation can be repurposed when it comes to creating the visual version. For example, the initial decision tree may only require small tweaks to make it work as a text-based option.

Smart IVR

Though truly sophisticated IVR systems are still relatively rare with technology still developing, the future looks bright. According to the same Speech Technology article, web aware IVR is the next frontier; it calls it a, “… system that understands when a consumer is logged into a website and uses predictive analytics to determine consumer intent."

In a best case scenario, AI-driven algorithms will flag a customer for a specific type of support after having analyzed their past interactions. "For example, if customers who are normally active on digital channels call a help line, they are likely seeking a resolution you don’t offer online. The best course of action in this case might be to pass the call to a human agent as soon as possible," according to McKinsey.

When it comes to IVR, the most important factor is to keep it evolving to continue to meet increasing customer expectations and leverage new technology. As with any product or service enhancement initiative, always test changes in a controlled environment before releasing them to the world. For many customers, your IVR is their first impression of your customer support operation, so it's important to make it a good one.

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