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Interactive Voice Response: Press 1 for customer service best practices

Posted September 5, 2018
Woman using an iPhone

Whether it’s calling the bank, cable company or your medical provider, at some point in time we’ve all had to navigate automated and voice-activated telephone menus. These Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems have emerged over the years as a means to provide quick, cost-effective customer service.

“Call center IVR grew out of the technology around voicemail in the ’80s, and really began to emerge in the early ’90s to perform voice-to-customer interactions,” recalls Elaine Cascio, vice-president and IVR consultant at independent consulting firm, Vanguard Communications.

While IVR has been around for decades, mobile and web-based technologies have more recently raised the bar for customer service delivery, making long-winded menu options and unrecognizable voice commands seem clunky and outdated. “A number of organizations I’ve been working with haven’t touched their IVRs for 10 or 20 years,” observes Donna Fluss, owner of customer experience (CX) consulting firm DMG Consulting. “Customers have  just gotten really good at bypassing the system to get in touch with a human being.”

Modern day IVR systems don’t have to be fraught with these common frustrations. With the right strategies and tactics, IVR systems can actually enhance and improve the overall customer experience.

Best use cases for IVR

IVR systems have been implemented in a variety of industries over the years, mainly to facilitate customer self-service, deflect support tickets from agents and route calls more efficiently.

With years of experience consulting a variety of industries, Cascio has distilled a core nugget of wisdom: consider your average customer’s comfort level with technology first, and then determine how to use IVR accordingly. “In utilities, for example, many older customers are still accustomed to paying their electric bills over the phone,” she observes. “Years ago, it was common for people to call in and navigate an IVR to find out if their airline flight was on time. Now it’s just something that we automatically do [online].”

According to Cascio, IVR systems can be especially useful in the financial services industry. If users can call in and accomplish tasks by simply stating “check my balance” or “pay my bill” it not only simplifies the customer experience, but deflects easy-to-answer questions from frontline agents.

Fluss, who has worked with brands like T-Mobile and Thomson-Reuters to optimize their customer service, adds that intelligent call routing has been one of the biggest use cases for IVR from day one, and continues to add a similar level of value today.

Addressing common IVR challenges

Cascio and Fluss both say that the basic premise of any contact center technology — IVR systems included — is to reduce the amount of customer and agent effort, while increasing personalization in the overall customer experience. To do this, organizations need to recognize certain pitfalls and challenges that tend to crop up in IVR.

The first is that companies fail to perform routine IVR upkeep. “The menus have dead ends, some options hang up on customers when selected, or there are lengthy delays between options,” says Fluss. “In the long run this has a negative impact on task completion rates.”

Meanwhile, Cascio says some companies’ IVR menus try to be a catch-all for any and all possible customer queries, when in fact they should concentrate on refining their customer journey. She once worked with a financial services company that had a 20-item menu of options on its IVR system, one of which was to calculate retirement income for customers based on their financial situation.

To Cascio, it was clear that the company had translated a web experience into an IVR interaction. “Functions like retirement calculators are now much better done via the web. The bottom line is that you need to take a look at who and where your customers are, what they’re trying to do and consider whether or not IVR is truly the most appropriate means to get the job done.”

Improving and modernizing IVR systems

When it comes to implementing a new IVR or updating your current IVR, there are a few best practices that should be considered. “Always tell customers the action to perform first, and the numerical or voice option second,” Cascio recommends. “When customers hear ‘For XYZ, press one,’ it’s actually easier for them to associate the two than if the order were reversed.”

She also advises to keep menus — and sub-menus — short and sweet: “More often than not, redundant or unnecessary choices can be eliminated, and the overall IVR menu streamlined.”

Moreover, let customers know up-front whether a human agent will be available at some point. If your contact center doesn’t operate around the clock, make sure the IVR lets people know from the beginning that they’re calling during down hours.

Next, Fluss advises that every company should have a program where a staff member calls into the IVR system to check every single option and component on a scheduled basis. “There’s always low-hanging fruit, and a few simple changes to menus or options can make a world of difference to your customers,” she says.

Finally, there are three important words Cascio relates to IVR transformation: history, memory and knowledge. “Having information about a customer’s history purchase patterns — a memory of things like what channels they used — and combining that knowledge with other demographic data [can help] optimize your IVR system,” Cascio says.

IVR systems have been around for years, and customers are familiar with many of the pain points. Brands that understand the role of IVR in the overall customer experience and strive for its continual improvement, will see the results reflected in higher customer satisfaction and increased loyalty.

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