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Interactive Voice Response: The Ongoing Challenge to Enhance the Customer Experience

The humble telephone has been processing customer requests and queries now for over 50 years. There was once a time when you could actually talk to a real person, but this was promptly replaced by “automated systems” that served only to drive customers mad, whilst the accountants basked in the money they had saved their bosses. Interactive Voice Response (IVR) had landed, and it would prove to be both one of the most hated technologies and yet one of the must have additions to any business. 

Fast forward to a population that is over worked, time constrained, and fuelled by tech savvy millennials, you had a perfect storm for mass customer dissatisfaction and customers simply pulling the plug on what were often long term, highly valued relationships. Badly designed IVR solutions actually had the potential to increase the number of inbound calls due to poor call routing and high levels of unsuccessful issue resolution.

Some companies however are using this channel to their advantage; cutting costs, increasing customer satisfaction and maintaining long standing customer relationships. The secret is investing in an IVR system that works for everyone. 

What have been the market drivers?


are not used to waiting and expect businesses to read their mind! As far-fetched as that may sound, it isn’t that too much to ask. If I phone my insurer near my renewal date, the IVR should know who I am and that I am more than likely phoning to renew. Likewise, an airline customer calling a few days before their flight, are likely wanting to change their travel arrangements and should be routed accordingly. 

Baby Boomers:

often the first to reach for the phone, are the ones that can be subjected to the overall worst experience. They tend not to self-serve and undertake basic administrative tasks over the phone. A simple change of address or account query for example can quickly expose the failings of poor solutions. Terrible sound quality as well as a lack of intelligent design only compounds the issue. How often have you provided an incorrect account number and had to start the process all over again….or found yourself repeating your answers in a vain attempt for the robot voice to understand you?


there is a growing customer preference to undertake basic administrative tasks ourselves. If we cannot find a resolution we immediately pick up the phone. At this point the last thing we want is to get lost in a maze of time consuming dead ends. We expect to be directed as quickly as possible to a resolution via the channel we associate most with success. 


has only increased the proficiency by which we interchange between channels. We can e-mail, use online help, launch web-chat and even video calls. The issue we face unfortunately is that having usually tried a combination of several channels before we opt for a voice call, is that we have to repeat ourselves one last time when we are already at our breaking point. The need for customers to once again prove who they are and remember their account number or online password is enough to make even the most patient customer snap. 

What does a good IVR solution look to achieve? 

IVR is becoming more and more intelligent. Thanks to the rise of mobile personal assistants such as Siri, we are all more familiar with IVR technology undertaking some of the heavy lifting for us. Good IVR solutions should look to incorporate the following: 

  1. Automate the customer identification process: there are several ways this can be achievedsuch as the customer’s phone number or calling from within their mobile app (commonly used in the banking sector). This benefits the customer and also reduces average call time. If you are receiving thousands of calls a month, 30 seconds saved each time can translate to huge savings.

  2. Predict why customers are phoning: making people listen to a set of options that have no relevance is infuriating. Remember all that data you have on customers that you don’t use? This is the place to at least use the basics.

  3. Get them to a real person: when automation is not an option, and only customer service representative will do, make sure the customer can press the eject button and get there as quickly as possible.

  4. Deflect, but deflect well: too often IVR is used to divert us away from expensive call handlers to less expensive online resources. Done badly and at inappropriate stages, this only passes customers from pillar to post and issues remain unresolved. If you are going to deflect us elsewhere, make sure it is in the right direction.

  5. Automate and reduce costs: if it can be automated well; then automate it. Do you need to pay a call handler to answer a question regarding your opening times or the status of a customer’s most recent account query?  Automating more tasks enables call handlers to add real value on complex customer queries and can help remove spikes during peak call periods. 

  6. Use quality audio: poor and inconsistent voice recordings instantly disengage a customer. The use of several voices leaves the caller feeling confused and often does not match the branding message required by the wider business.

  7. Align to the wider mobile strategy: having spent the past decade trying to implement Omni Channel functionality, don’t go backwards when refreshing your IVR. The technology is still not at the level we need but focus on what you can do and do it well. 

    “US contact centres spend $12.4 billion annually verifying the caller is who they  say they are. 59% of calls require identity verification, but only 3% of these are handled entirely through automated processes” ContactBabel 2014

​​And what about the future? 

After some false starts, Biometrics is beginning to gain traction and could be the major catalyst for the next wave of innovation. Using the unique characteriscs of a person’s voice it is possible to remove the need for passwords and PINs which can streamline the identification and verification process and detect fraud. As we become more familiar with the mobile channel, Visual IVR is also a natural progression. The voice aspect of the call is supplemented with on screen prompts using your mobile. This allows users to quickly select from the list of options and see useful background information as they navigate the process. In most cases the user doesn’t have to initiate the call until they have reached the appropriate starting point off-line. 


From mobile phone personal assistants, to smart household devices, the increasing use of voice technology can only re-invigorate the IVR market. The challenge providers have, is creating a solution that mirrors the ever sophisticated experience that the tech giants are introducing to mainstream devices. If not, IVR could remain in the shadows and fail to be a major component of not only reducing costs but elevating the customer experience. 


Sia Partners

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