Making the IVR Ogre Customer-Friendly

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  August 01, 2010

(This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of CUSTOMER [email protected] Solutions)

Fans of the movie series Shrek have seen how a mean and destructive ogre becomes warm and friendly, and a force for good, wrapped in an arch and sometimes pointed sense of humor.

Are we at last seeing a similar evolution with inbound and outbound IVR systems?

IVRs – speech recognition systems as well as DTMF (i.e., touchtone) are the undisputed ogres of customer service. If customers fail to fall into the elite 20 percent that produce 80 percent of profits – the infamous “Pareto Principle” – that makes them worthy enough to be given the attention of a live agent jammed inside a cube somewhere in the world, they are tossed into the realm of these virtual creatures. Once caught by them, buyers and prospects are beaten by nightmarish menus, limited libraries and bad grammars. If they wriggle free, they frantically search for agent opt-outs to get into the castle but, too often, they don’t exist.

Speech rec. has often made IVR more customer-friendly yet, at considerable expense and lead time. These applications are still far from perfect. They are also creepy when they are personalized, like Amtrak’s “Julie,” because they lull you to think you are interacting with a person, when you are really chatting to a programmed chip housed on a server in a climate-controlled room somewhere in the universe.

On the outbound side, well if you think agents spitting off scripts, driven by predictive dialers that spin up their output like feeding caffeine-laced pellets and water to hamsters in cages, it can be worse: it can be the machines that are robo-calling you at dinner time.

Too often, the corporate message is this: We welcome your business but don’t bug us.

There appears then to be a rough correlation between the advent of IVR, and CRM systems that have ruthlessly applied the former tools, and what appears to be increased customer dissatisfaction and annoyance. Is this trend just coincidence? Is it the result of the downturn that makes individuals edgy or an increased impatience by the populace? Or is it the logical consequence of corporate actions like employing irritating IVR systems?

One of the shining silver linings from the economic slump is it forced companies to quit taking customers for granted. For if these outfits tick buyers off, they will go elsewhere, tell the world about it via social media, resulting in fewer others that will be suckered in to replace that lost business.

Smart companies understand that revenue losses exceed cost savings from overeager IVR deployments. They and their suppliers are turning their attention to their systems by making them into constructive tools that can actually improve customer service and retention as well as lower expenses and boost productivity.

As revealed in recent TMCnet.com stories, in the CIS March article on speech, and in the July feature on IVR/IVVR, suppliers such as Angel.com, Avaya, Convergys (News - Alert), CosmoCom, Nuance and Voxeo (to name a few) and their customers are designing better inbound applications including improved workflows, routing and grammar. They are employing analytics tools to understand where the sticking points are in automated interactions and finding solutions to them.

At the same time, outbound IVR is rapidly becoming a customer friend, rather than a foe, by being repurposed by firms from thankfully lawfully restricted marketing purposes to into invaluable alerting tools, such as credit card balance exceeds and potential fraud, flight delays and opt-in special offers. Outbound IVR, when so employed, is multi-win by delivering improved service while cutting costs through avoiding inbound calls.

There is also a growing understanding by suppliers and buyers of the functions each of these tools – DTMF and speech rec, automated voice, text and Web, live agents and soon video – can do best and are deploying them accordingly. No one channel or solution fits all customer interactions.

Customers may not exactly be a fan of IVR systems but, if they are programmed right, with their needs in mind, they can actually do some good by enabling them to get the services and items they need with minimal wait times… and aggravation.

Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi