In today's call centers, customer experience (CX) is king and technology is one tool to keep it firmly seated on its throne. Modern consumers value speed, convenience, and choice and will reward businesses that provide those qualities in their customer service interactions. Conversely, they'll shop around when organizations don't deliver on these expectations. With the stakes so high, organizations need to pull out all the stops to satisfy customers, to include implementing experience-enhancing call center software.
If CX is the king, then an interactive voice response (IVR) system is the butler that greets the castle visitors. A well-designed IVR, just like a competent butler, cordially greets guests, assesses the reason for their visit, and makes sure they reach their destination. This interaction sets the tone for the rest of the "visit."
What is an IVR?
An IVR is an automated interface that allows callers to interact with an organization at the beginning of a phone call. IVRs typically play a recorded greeting and then may provide menu options that ultimately lead callers to an agent or self-service functionality. Many people know IVRs as the system that tells them to "Press 1 for sales."
IVRs are commonly used in call centers, where they're integrated with automatic call distributors (ACDs) to handle call routing. However, their use isn’t limited to call centers - they can be used in any type of organization that needs to ensure phone calls are directed to the correct destination.
IVRs have benefited greatly from modern technology. Early versions used DTMF (Dual Tone – Multi Frequency) for caller input, meaning interactions were limited to what callers could enter using their phone's keypad. Today, artificial intelligence allows callers to voice their needs to IVRs that use automatic speech recognition (ASR). Additionally, smartphone users can use a visual IVR to express their needs before the call is connected.
The Rodney Dangerfield of call center software?
IVRs often don't get the respect they deserve. Admittedly, the way some organizations have configured their IVR leaves much to be desired. Who hasn't been stuck in an endless phone menu and resorted to repeatedly yelling "representative" or pressing the zero key on your phone over and over? It makes you question the company's motives, as if they never want to connect you with a customer service agent. In these cases, these organizations have turned their IVRs into bad butlers who take you on a wandering tour of the castle and ultimately deposit you in the dungeon with no hope of escape.
When we surveyed consumers for the 2019 NICE inContact Customer Experience (CX) Transformation Benchmark study, we asked how satisfied consumers were with their IVR experiences. Only 26% scored them 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale. There's improvement to be made and many years of unfortunate reputation to overcome. It's important to get this right, because the same study also showed that phone is still the most commonly used support channel, which means high numbers of consumers will continue to interact with IVRs at the beginning of their calls.
Businesses need to configure their IVRs with customers in mind, including programming concise menus and providing an easy way to quickly connect to an agent. Otherwise, some of the IVR’s capabilities, discussed below, won't be maximized.
High quality IVRs have capabilities that enhance customer experience and streamline some key operational processes. Organizations may decide to leverage all these capabilities or just choose a few to implement. IVRs should be flexible enough to adapt to business needs. Below are some examples of these capabilities.
1. Playing customized greetings
Don't underestimate the importance of a first impression! IVRs should let you easily record and implement your greetings. Many businesses even hire voice talent to make sure the branding of that first impression is just right. But for times when branding is of secondary importance, like in the case of a website outage, organizations should be able to quickly switch the greeting to inform callers of status.
Additionally, the best IVRs can play different greetings based on the number the caller dialed. For BPOs, this means they can set up different greetings for their different clients. For regular businesses, this gives them the ability to, for example, play different greetings (and provide different menu options) for their separate sales and service lines.
2. Assessing what the caller needs
Traditional IVRs require customers to use the keypad on their phone to interact with the menu ("Press 5 for corporate sales"), but more modern systems may allow callers to simply say their menu option, or bypass the menu altogether by stating what they need ("I need help placing a corporate order"). Regardless of the method, the information collected by the IVR informs the system about what the caller needs and enables the next capability.
3. Facilitating smarter routing
IVRs typically team with automatic call distributors (ACDs) to route each caller to the agent that can best help them. The information the IVR collects during the upfront interaction, whether it's menu choices or spoken needs, is passed to the ACD, which uses the data in its routing routine. For example, a caller who needs help with corporate sales would be routed to a corporate sales specialist rather than a regular sales agent. Calls can also be routed based on geographic location, language preference, and much more. Smarter routing should result in a more satisfying outcome and experience.
4. Enabling self-service
Modern IVRs enable customers to self-serve for simple tasks like checking store hours, finding out account balances, and rescheduling appointments. This allows businesses to provide 24/7 coverage and appeals to customers who want to quickly resolve their own issues. Additionally, handling these contacts in the IVR is much more cost-effective than having an agent handle them. IVR self-service requires integration between the IVR and other business systems. For example, if changing an appointment is a self-service task, the IVR needs to talk to the customer appointment scheduling system.
5. Understanding human speech
In order to provide some of the aforementioned capabilities, an IVR must be infused with artificial intelligence (AI) so that it can understand and process human speech. An IVR uses natural language processing (NLP) to interpret what callers are saying to it - "What time does the Main Street store open on Saturday?" - and then transforms it into a format other systems can use. Then it uses text-to-speech (TTS) to read the response back to the caller - "The Main Street store opens at 10 am on Saturday." In addition to enabling self-service, these language capabilities are required for callers to vocally interact with menus.
6. Managing caller expectations
IVRs can help manage caller expectations about wait times – and that’s particularly helpful when call volumes are high and queues are full. No one likes to wait in queue, but if the IVR can provide an estimated wait time, it makes it at least a little more palatable. Additionally, good IVRs can offer callers in queue the option to receive a callback from an agent so they don't have to continue to wait.
7. Jumpstarting the agent interaction
The information IVRs collect can also be passed to agents to jumpstart the conversation. For example, if an IVR authenticates a caller's identity, that information can be transmitted to the agent and trigger a screen pop from the CRM system. Not only can the agent skip the authentication process, but she also has instant access to customer history so she can personalize the call and get down to business. This can lower average handle times (AHT), decrease labor costs, and allow agents to focus on problem solving.
8. Collecting customer feedback
Capturing customer feedback is key to continuously improving customer experience. IVRs can present surveys at the conclusion of phone calls so that businesses can measure customer satisfaction (CSAT), Net Promoter Scores (NPS), and more. Asking for feedback immediately after the contact will ensure the experience is still fresh in the caller's mind. Timely and regular feedback will help business leaders understand how an important touchpoint in the customer journey - the call center - is performing.
Are IVRs just for large enterprises?
No, but the question is understandable. Considering all the capabilities above and comparing them to some small business's needs may seem like we're suggesting they use a sledgehammer to pound a nail into the wall. Even if all these capabilities don't get used, SMBs need good “butlers”, too. Recall that an IVR's most basic functions are to greet callers, find out what they need, and help them reach their destinations. Just about any business that takes inbound calls can use those capabilities, even if they don't have a call center.
SMBs can use IVRs in place of receptionists to transfer calls to staff members. For example, anyone calling the main phone number could be asked by the IVR to enter the extension of the person they want to talk to or simply speak the staff member's name. Or the menu could ask them to choose the department they need, and the calls could be transferred to a general line within the department. And if the business has a jack-of-all-trades that can solve just about any customer issue, they could configure a service menu where most of the menu options transfer callers to their rock star problem solver. This helps convey the message that the organization is committed to customer service while also ensuring customers are connected to the person who can help them.
Expanding these examples out a bit, providing customers with self-service options is useful and attainable for any size organization. If companies focus first on automating low hanging fruit - simple tasks and common questions - they'll quickly realize cost savings. Plus, being able to provide 24/7 support will set small businesses apart from their competition and should improve customer satisfaction.
Benefits for everyone
IVRs can yield benefits to every size operation. As organizations expand the use of IVR capabilities, they should experience a corresponding expansion of the benefits they realize. We've touched on some of these benefits already, but here is a more concise list.
Labor cost savings
Resolving customer inquiries in the IVR versus having agents handle them is a much more cost-effective solution - pennies versus dollars. Additionally, when the IVR passes data to agents, allowing them to bypass certain process steps, this lowers average handle times (AHT) and cost per contact (CPC), which ultimately reduces labor costs. Smarter customer-agent matching also lowers these two metrics because more qualified agents will likely bring interactions to a speedier conclusion. Finally, for small businesses that have been using a staff member to route calls, automating this process will at least let them reallocate these labor hours to more value-added tasks.
Improved customer experience
This benefit will only be realized by companies that don't configure their IVRs to lead callers into the Dungeon of No Escape. Well-designed IVRs can enhance the customer experience in several ways. For example, many consumers value having options for how they interact with businesses. IVR self-service provides choice to customers who want to solve their own simple problems. Additionally, since IVRs enable better routing, callers are more likely to be matched with an agent that will deliver a satisfying experience. Also, when IVRs provide 24/7 self-service coverage, customers will have peace of mind that the business is always there for them.
Improved agent experience
How can a system that agents don't directly use improve their experience? For one thing, smarter routing increases the likelihood that agents will receive inquiries that they can actually resolve. Everyone wants to feel competent at their jobs, so this is bound to boost agent satisfaction. Additionally, when IVRs handle simpler tasks, this lifts some of the burden of mundane work from agents. The contacts that make it through to agents will be more complex, allowing agents to exercise and showcase their problem-solving skills. Many agents will find this more rewarding.
Many of these capabilities - self-service, 24/7 coverage, better agent matching - mean customer inquiries will be resolved more quickly. Enabling customers to solve their own problems, especially after hours, means callers don't have to wait for an agent to become available. They can self-serve and be on their way. But for customers that do want some agent assistance, the smarter routing enabled by IVRs will match them to an agent who is more likely to have the qualifications that will result in a faster resolution. The call center will hum like a well-oiled machine!
IVRs can play an important role in setting the tone for an exceptional customer experience. Whether it serves as the prelude to an agent interaction or handles the entire customer inquiry, an IVR is a valuable tool for organizations to have in their toolkits. The CX-enhancing capabilities of cloud-based IVRs are available to businesses of all sizes, typically at a very affordable cost. Then it's up to organizations to design their IVRs to be good “butlers” that lead callers to the rich experience of outstanding customer service.
About NICE inContact CXone Interactive Voice Response (IVR)
NICE inContact is an industry-leading provider of call center software, used by organizations of every size. Our IVR solution, CXone Interactive Voice Response (IVR), is voice self-service that accelerates resolution, improves routing and cuts costs with automation. Packed with capabilities, CXone IVR allows organizations to better respond to dynamic conditions as well as optimize the customer journey. To learn more about our IVR software, download the datasheet. And IVRs aren't just for inbound calls. Read this blog post to find out more about the capabilities and benefits of outbound IVRs.