Nearshore Americas

Use Telephone IVR Strategically to Minimize Customer Frustration

“Press 1 for accounts; press 2 for technical support; press…” Interactive voice response systems have permeated almost all aspects of customer experience, but getting IVR right is tougher than it seems.

Mayur Anadkat, Director of Product Marketing at Five9, said that IVRs have been around for more than 25 years and yet they still continue to fall short of both consumers’ and vendors’ expectations. “While the technology has improved and is more accessible than ever, the use [of] and experience with IVRs still leave many customers frustrated,” he said.

Stuart Dorman, Head of Consulting at Sabio, agreed, adding that while frustrating IVR menus, confusing options, and difficulty in connecting to live agents are all reasons why customers turn against traditional IVR systems, the reality is that reducing customer effort while still providing cost-effective service does not need to be mutually exclusive.
“Effective self-service using technologies such as IVR and speech automation can not only lower costs and increase ROI, but also enhance the customer experience,” he said.

Pete Santarsiero, Technical Director at ANT Telecom, said: “IVR is good technology that works for many organizations, but if contact centers do not use it to its full potential, it can lead to a bad experience for the end user.”

He explained that it is therefore important to think about the customer journey, as IVR can be the first and potentially last interaction that a customer has with your organization. “The last thing an organization needs is to have customers stuck in a loop within the system or have them hang up due to the process failing to fulfill their needs,” he said.

Santarsiero added: “From the quality of the announcements to the holding music used, through to the data input and customer navigation, it needs to be a well thought out and seamless process. Organizations who invest in IVR to enhance the customer experience and therefore place the customer at the center of the journey, will be those who will gain maximum benefit from the technology.”

Dorman provided four examples of effective use of IVR:

  • Automating simple, repetitive tasks: automated IVR systems can quickly identify and fulfill the customer’s need, freeing contact center agents to handle more complicated problems by eliminating routine, manual processes. Should the customer need to opt out and switch to live service, intelligent routing ensures that the caller is routed to the right individual – not just the first available agent. Increasingly, mobile ‘Visual IVR’-style applications also offer another valuable self-service option.
  • Smoothing interaction volumes: customers frequently cite waiting times as their most frustrating customer service issue. Putting self-service IVR to work and offering customers the option of being called back—either as soon as an agent’s available or at a pre-agreed time—not only improves customer satisfaction, but also lets contact centers optimize their staffing levels with a potentially significant impact on operational costs.
  • Optimizing operational payment performance: IVR also works well in helping organizations automate payments and sales support over the phone.
  • Improving enterprise resource usage: Using IVR self-service at the front end of customer interactions can help steer customers to the most appropriate resource, whether through intelligent steering, automated identification and verification, or simply more appropriate matching of customer enquiries to skilled expertise.

Lee Mostari, Director of Customer Transformation at NICE Systems, said that they recommend a holistic view into the voice of the customer, even in regards to the IVR.  “First, we recommend the use of advanced speech analytics to categorize phone interactions after the IVR moment to discover discussions of IVR failure and glean indirect feedback to the root-case of IVR issues,” he said.

He added: “We find that more organizations are using their feedback systems through direct surveys to measure the customer experience and get immediate and actionable feedback into the hands of the IVR design team.”

Mostari cautioned that employee-lead interviews and focus groups about the IVR often provide anecdotal perceptions into the true journey of a customer through self-service.  “A holistic approach of analyzing indirect feedback and asking direct feedback provides a balanced look into what customers are really saying and how they feel,” he said.

Mostari used the example of a European telco that once implemented changes to their IVR with the intention of removing calls from the contact center and driving self-service. The changes implemented included hidden paths to exit the IVR to speak to an advisor.

“This was a conscious decision with the understanding that the change would increase the volume of self-service contained transactions and remove a significant amount of calls from the contact center, thus saving millions in operational cost,” Mostari said.

He explained that there was an understanding that there would be a small drop in Customer Experience, and therefore a small drop in the Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) scores.  “The impact of the changes were much more dramatic,” Mostari said. “The CSAT of customers actually halved as a result of the change and the volume of customers talking about the IVR in their ‘Voice of the Customer’ program shot up five-fold.”

He went onto explain that the only silver lining to this cloud, was that the company had a robust and real time way to measure customer experience, so the impact was identified within 24 hours of the change being implemented, monitored closely for a further 24 hours to understand if the results were accurate then the IVR change was backed out.

“The IVR was then quickly redesigned and paths to speak to advisors reinstated. When reintroduced, there was a small drop in CSAT as originally predicted, but within two months customers had gotten used to the changes and CSAT scores returned to previous levels,” Mostari said. “The company did eventually deliver on the operation expenditure (OPEX) savings needed but learned a hard lesson that forcing customers into self-service probably wasn’t the best strategy.”

Anadkat offered three best practices for the use of IVR in contact centers:

  • Make sure to offer call-back options: Long hold times are often the number one customer complaint with customer service. “Offering call-back options is very easy to do and allows consumers to receive a call back when it’s their turn,” he said. “By not offering call back options companies are missing out on an easy win in customer service.”
  • Capture customer information in the IVR and pass it on the agent: According to Anadkat, the lack of integration between self and live (agent) service commonly drives a wedge between a customer and a brand, because they begin to associate that brand with the level of customer support they receive. “When consumers go through the IVR and then are transferred to an agent, they often times have to repeat the same information. This is not a shortcoming in technology but how it is being used, because the data isn’t transferred onto the agent’s screen,” he said. Deploy technology that seamlessly connects IVR data and agent data.
  • Always give customer an out of ‘IVR Jail:’ “With really bad IVR designs, consumers get stuck in ‘IVR jail’, with long and confusing menu options, where they can’t find the option they want and they can’t get to what they want so they hit zero out of frustration,” Anadkat said. “To avoid this, strive for a simple design and always offer the customer an out, like callback or escalations to an agent.”

Anadkat added that there are pitfalls to avoid. “Don’t create separate & siloed self-service systems. Most contact center owners worry about future-proofing their contact center system, and this includes their self-service systems. Traditionally IVR has been a phone function that walks through a set of answers in an automated way. As people become more mobile, companies need to accommodate mobile self-service while reusing and optimizing self-service building blocks across all platforms,” he said.

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He further advised that contact centers should not design the IVR with call deflection as the primary goal. “In the past, call centers would try to get 80+ percent of callers to self-service out of the queue, to minimize costs. However, since the design was based on cost-containment, it hardly took into account if the customer ever got the answer they wanted,” Anadkat said.

Santarsiero added that it is important to review the number of menu options customers go through on an IVR to ensure that there are not too many of them, and that these are clear and easy to understand. “Companies should also review whether the options could be put in order of those most frequently selected by customers. This will mean that customers are not listening to a long list of options before getting to the one they need,” he said.

IVR can improve customer experience and cost costs, but it requires an implementation that considers the customer and the needs that the IVR can fulfill. As Santarsiero said: “Companies should consider why an IVR is being used and the impact [it has] on its customers, and that it mirrors their brand, giving a positive message to customers.”

This article was originally published by NSAM sister publication Customer Experience Report.

Bianca Wright

Nearshore Americas Contributing Editor Bianca Wright has been published in a variety of magazines and online publications in the UK, the US and South Africa, including Global Telecoms Business,, SA Computer Magazine, M-Business,, Business Start-ups, Cosmopolitan and ComputorEdge. She holds a MPhil degree in Journalism from the University of Stellenbosch and a DPhil in Media Studies from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

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