January 04, 2011
Technology Solution Delivery

Agent, Agent, Agent!

Having worked the majority of my career designing and enhancing Interactive Voice Recognition systems (IVR’s), I’ve seen a lot of frustration from the users.  When I tell my friends/family what I do, I get reactions such as “I hate those things,” or “Why won’t companies let me speak to an Agent?”  When I speak with other IVR designers, I hear comments such as “Customers don’t even try” or “How could they have picked the wrong option?”  So, who is right?  Is the company to blame for forcing this upon customers or is the customer to blame for not using it right?  As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Below are factors companies should consider when designing IVRs:

  1. Use the collected data from customers’ account intelligently.  This data can be extremely powerful to personalize the IVR experience and reduce customer frustration.  It is extremely frustrating for a caller to answer questions they feel the company should already know (e.g. what products and services they have or are they an existing customer).
  2. Automating functions can save money, but it is extremely important to pick the right functions to automate.  Automating all caller functions is not going to benefit anyone if the functions have a low success rate, or if the frequency of a particular type of call does not justify the investment of development.  Carefully consider what to automate and only attempt to automate the things callers can easily complete without speaking to an agent.
  3. Good IVR design takes commitment beyond the initial design.  A company needs to be dedicated to collecting data, listening to calls and analyzing the results.  Too often, companies believe they know exactly how their customers are going to behave and design the IVR off those assumptions. Inevitably, some of these assumptions will be incorrect and changes will need to be made. To avoid this scenario, verify your assumptions by working with your customer base to perform usability testing.  Further, it is crucial that companies be prepared to make changes after implementation and design an application that is flexible and easy to change.  Doing this due diligence up front will save money and frustration.
  4. Keep the menus simple and make sure the design always gives the caller the sense they are moving forward.  This may sound obvious but I have seen many designs which do not follow this guideline.  Callers will request an agent as soon as they feel they are going down the incorrect path.  If the caller has the perception that the questions are leading them down the correct path, they will be more likely to continue in the IVR.
  5. Do not hide the option to reach an agent.  It is impossible to automate every task that a customer can perform; therefore, reaching an agent should always be an option.  Well-designed IVRs do not need to hide the agent option because many customers are willing to use the IVR and will not fall back on the agent option.  It’s like knowing you have a safety net.  You’re more willing to take a chance when you know it’s there.

Below are factors customers should consider when using an IVR:

  1. I will not try to convince you that all IVRs work well.  However, I will ask you to assume that there are some good ones out there.  I talk to several people who refuse to try navigating through an IVR even if they are using it for the first time.  Instead, their immediate reaction is to say, “agent.”  Those who make an effort, will find that a well-designed IVR can be a fruitful experience, i.e. less time-consuming than waiting for an agent, getting bounced around to another agent, and ultimately, successful.
  2. Remember, a company’s goal is to get users that do need an agent to the appropriate agent, not prevent them from getting to an agent at all.  Companies spend countless hours and money training their agents to be experts in certain areas (orders, billing questions, technical support, etc).  Give the IVR a chance and take the time to answer the questions.  This improves the chance of getting to the right agent the first time and avoids longer wait times as a result of being transferred.
  3. Contrary to popular belief, using an IVR can save time, not waste time.  There are several IVRs that provide self-service functionality that allow users to quickly complete a task without speaking to a customer service representative.  Additionally, these self-service functions provide the opportunity to complete a task when the offices may be closed.
  4. Do not be afraid to give feedback if you have a bad experience in an IVR.  Companies who design IVRs often deal with a large customer base that can lead to a complex design.  There is a good chance they have not thought of everything and are not aware of some of the challenges their customers are facing.  Companies do care about customer satisfaction and their goal is to make the IVR experience as easy as possible for you.  Your feedback will be welcome.

Both parties involved (companies who implement them and customers who use them) must remember that the intent is to improve customer service and reduce costs.  Those outcomes are goals both parties would find beneficial.  If the IVR doesn’t improve customer experience or reduce costs, question the implementation and the change management associated with it.  Kenway Consulting prides itself on asking the right questions and engineering an IVR implementation approach targeting those two objectives and ensuring an incremental improvement in improved customer experience and cost reduction.

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