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by Emily Neier
on November 14, 2018

Have you ever called a customer support line and heard the computer-generated voice phrase: “I am capable of understanding complete sentences”? There’s a pretty good chance you have, and there’s also a pretty good chance that when you tried to relay the reason for your call to this artificial intelligence bot, it told you, “I’m sorry, I did not understand. Can you repeat that?”

These systems, called interactive voice response (IVR) systems, have their roots in voicemail capabilities from the 1980’s and have had several common iterations since their inception. You probably started encountering IVRs as automated menus where you pressed the number corresponding to the action you need, like refilling a prescription medication or paying a bill over the phone. These menus cut down on call volume to representatives and made simple, repetitive tasks easier for companies and their customers. In the case of customer support, an automated menu could also direct a call to the proper department.

Then IVRs started asking for users to select menu options by saying them. Customers could read off account numbers instead of entering them on the keypad.

But in the last few years—IVRs started wanting to have conversations with callers. And they’re not particularly good at it.

Most customers know how to bypass this system by immediately (and in some cases, repeatedly) asking to speak to a representative—which thwarts the efforts of the IRV and renders a company’s investment in one useless. But companies continue to use advanced IVRs, even if their voice recognition skills leave something to be desired.

So, is it possible IVRs can be successful at providing excellent customer service?

Voice commands have come a long way in the past ten years, and artificial intelligence (AI) is already integrated with voice with the rise in home assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google. And comScore predicts that by 2020, half of all internet searches will be done by voice.

AI is getting better all the time at interpreting voice input, so IVRs should be getting smarter, too, right?

The functionality of an IVR rests on the shoulders of the company that implemented it. An IVR is a lot like your company website, and it should be maintained as such. Websites can be confusing to navigate, become outdated, have broken links, or lead users in circles looking for information. IVRs have the potential for similar issues: menus that are too long or confusing, options that lead to dead ends (or worse, the IVR hangs up on a customer), or menu options that take callers in circles.

AI is getting smarter, but an IVR is only as effective as a company allows it to be.

Here are some best practices for making sure your company’s IVR is functional and helpful to customers.

1. Audit your IVR regularly

Sometimes things break. Your IVR should be audited for the function of each menu option regularly. This can be a time-consuming task depending on the size of your IVR, but it should be done by a dedicated individual or team a couple times a year.

2. Keep menus short

This seems like a no-brainer because no one wants to listen to 20+ menu options. Then why do some companies still do it? Menus and submenus need to be short. Unlike a web page, users don’t get to look back at all their options. They have to remember and make the right choice or suffer through the whole list a second time.

When menus exceed 5 or even 3 options, callers might have trouble recalling all the options. Or worse, they could get frustrated with too many choices and hang up.

3. Menu items should be relevant

Looking to shorten your menus now? Keep your options relevant. A main menu will be broad, so specific tasks can probably be moved under submenus from the main menu. For example, if you’re a bank, and your IVR probably allows customers to check their account balances. Instead of including a menu option in the main menu for each different kind of account, the main menu option might be, “Check my account balance” which would lead to a submenu of, “checking account balance” or, “savings account balance.”

4. Let callers know if they will speak to a live agent

People who take the time to make a phone call to a customer service line are expecting to talk to a live agent. While an automated menu isn’t going to be a shocker at the beginning, after a few options are made through the IVR, and a customer hasn’t reached an agent yet, they might start to lose some patience.

If you intend to use the IVR to solve customer queries without connecting them to a service representative, let them know; if prompted, provide them with instructions to get in contact with a live agent.

5. Speak the language of your customers

You wouldn’t optimize your website for keywords your customers aren’t searching. The script of your IVR should use the words your customers use. Customers might get lost using your company’s IVR if they select the wrong menu option by mistake.

Remember when voice search first hit the consumer market? It wasn’t nearly as effective as it’s become, and while it was entertaining at times—it defeats the purpose if the voice recognition can’t figure out what the user wants. IVR doesn’t have to be as sophisticated as home assistant devices, but it should mimic the terminology your customers are using.

IVR can be a useful way to route calls to the proper service departments and perform routine tasks. Voice search and home assistants have increased the appeal of performing tasks with artificial intelligence, and the sophistication of IVR will become even more human over time.

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