IVR: Pet Peeve or Dealbreaker?

by Dan Fox

I’ve often heard it said that every customer relationship should be considered a marriage between the company and the consumer. I can’t agree more. There are as many different types of marriages as there are customer relationships. I’ll start with the wonderful kind – the couple married for dozens of years, with each partner loving everything about the other. This would be my relationship with Starbucks. Then there’s the short marriage, like Kim Kardashian’s, that starts off fine but quickly sours. It’s like finding a great pizza spot where you start to regularly grab lunch, until the day you see a rat running across the floor. There’s the couple that’s been married for much longer than they should be, but they are still together for some reason; let’s compare this to your relationship with your cable company. I could go on, but you get the idea. I’d like to focus on one aspect of every relationship: the pet peeve, the one thing that bothers you more than anything else about that other person. It can range from a mild annoyance to a deal-breaker, but either way, it exists in every relationship. In all company-customer relationships, that ”pet peeve” very well might be your IVR. If you’re like most companies, an overwhelming majority of your customers are averse to your IVR; it’s not something your customers love about you. The problem is that for some discerning customers, your IVR might be a deal-breaker. However, there are some things you can do today to address this problem.

1. Improve the Voice Talent

Believe it or not, voice talent is one of the most important factors in your customers’ overall opinion of your IVR. Your voice talent is the personality that callers connect with your company. It goes far beyond the voice’s tone and inflection. I highly recommend you read, “I Wanna Go Tuh Cleveland…” by Allison Smith. She goes into detail about how your callers mirror the style of the voice talent when engaging. Therefore, if your IVR has limited speech recognition capabilities, your voice talent should have a stiff, robotic voice. When your callers duplicate that style, the IVR will be able to understand them more easily.  If your IVR has a superior understanding, a more relaxed style will prompt callers to use a natural, conversational style of speaking, thus reducing their effort.

The question I see most often is whether to use a female or male voice. I’ve seen one too many studies comparing the two. The most honest is a 2010 study by Adweek and Harris Interactive, which states that almost half of all surveyed believe that a male voice is more forceful and almost half believe that a female voice is more soothing. Be that as it may, in my humble opinion, there is no difference. The talent, skill, intonation, and inflection have a much greater influence than the sex of the voice.

2. Improve your web self-service

I know we’re supposed to be talking about improving your IVR, but if you want to improve your customers’ experience in the IVR, you need to eliminate some of the calls to the call center that can just as easily be handled on the web. This frees up your IVR to devote more time and attention to the most complicated issues. This, in turn, elevates the call center representatives to the position of “trouble-shooters” instead of ordinary customer service reps. It’s a win-win situation for both company and customer.

Improving your web self-service is affordable, quick, easy to maintain, and something you can do immediately. Where do you start? A clean interface. Nothing turns your customers off more than going to the help page and having columns and columns of help articles that they assume will not address their specific concerns. One of the greatest benefits of using live chat or automated chat rather than scanning through a complicated FAQ is having the information pulled for the customers, rather than having them do all the legwork themselves. Simplifying the help section of your website with a solid knowledge base will decrease the number calls to your call center.

3. Dumb it down or Smarten it up:

It’s that simple. You can dumb down your IVR, making it a simple routing menu: press 1 for sales, 2 for technical support, and then take them right to the agent. No over-complication, no trapping your customers in endless trees, no confusion. There are many companies that are doing this today. Clearly you lose the benefits of automation and capturing data upfront, but many of these companies believe that a happier marriage will lead to a greater ROI in the long run. Some companies, such as Zappos, take this to the extreme, refusing to use an IVR at all. Every call starts and ends with a human. Of course, if all of your traffic is from the web, your callers have very specific needs that cannot be met on the fully equipped and intelligently designed website. In this case, you fully lose the benefits of routing and automation. However, a company like Zappos, whose customers give it rave reviews, makes up for that with happy marriages.

If you are a large corporation with millions of monthly calls, you realize immediately that dumbing down your IVR is not economically savvy and would be a major detriment to the company. In this case, you might consider “smartening” your IVR. There are a few companies that are challenging the common perception of IVR by offering fully natural language in conversational self-service. These systems are equipped with a greater degree of understanding potential. With improved speech recognition, more processes can be automated and the IVR becomes useful beyond a simple routing application. Upon equipping your IVR with an advanced natural language system, simple self-service requests can be automated, saving time for your agents to handle more difficult transactions.

These are just a few of the ways you can improve your IVR. It’s this type of change that diminishes the likelihood that your IVR will be your customers’ pet peeve. It’s hard to please your customers through the IVR, but if you can make it easier for them, you are more likely to experience the bliss of a happy marriage than the misery of a failed one.

Dan Fox is a Marketing Director with Interactions Corporation. Interactions offers most natural conversational self-service available – providing a revolutionary approach to customer service.