Dave Michels
Dave Michels is a Principal Analyst at TalkingPointz. His unique perspective on unified communications comes from a career involving telecommunications...
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Dave Michels | July 24, 2012 |


IVR: Interactive Voice Respect

IVR: Interactive Voice Respect Increasing customer sophistication means that your self-service mechanisms will have to become increasingly sophisticated as well.

Increasing customer sophistication means that your self-service mechanisms will have to become increasingly sophisticated as well.

Perhaps the worst example of technology gone awry is Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems. The technology started picking up traction in the 80s, and offered a variety of customer self-service capabilities. The IVR promised the business cost savings, and the customer 24-hour intuitive phone-based assistance. Prior to the IVR, something as simple as a bank balance was only available over the phone from a live agent that worked banking hours. The IVR was the perfect solution--what could possibly go wrong?

Too much of a good thing! We know what went wrong: over-automation, impossible-to-reach human agents, and phone trees from hell. The IVR isn't associated with general helpfulness, but instead is seen as a barrier to the assistance we seek. The IVR delivered on the cost savings portion of the equation, but wasn't quite the boon to customer satisfaction we expected. Good technology gone bad.

Frustrated by this, I approached a colleague who works in this area to ask him what went wrong. Don Van Doren, a partner at Unicomm Consulting, often works with enterprises to fix their IVRs. Don said:

"There are numerous situations in which many people prefer to work with an effective self-service solution such as an IVR. A common mistake is using internal jargon, or organizing menus based on internal organization structure, rather than how the customer thinks about things. We are often successful in getting organizations to think about this from the customer perspective. Sometimes, to get their attention, we'll record IVR sessions and play them back to horrified senior managers."

Don's comment confirms my suspicion that no one intends to create a terrible IVR, but whatever precautions are being taken are clearly not sufficient. The Wall Street Journal recently discussed this in Press 9 for more Options:

"I've been doing some research on this issue, and I've discovered that customer backlash against automated phone answering services is surging. Websites are proliferating with tips and tricks about how to navigate through these systems, head-fake the robotic gatekeepers, and minimize waiting times.

The first obvious pointer is to say 'agent,' 'operator,' or 'complaint,' over and over, no matter what the question. Another pointer is to never be cooperative or play by their rules; they want you to be as docile as a lamb."

In that article, Moore blurs the frustrations of IVRs and call centers, which he feels are conspiring to ensure maximum frustration. Call centers nearly always put their agents behind IVRs that attempt to resolve and sort calls, but regularly fail at both. IVRs are also used independently of call centers.

The NY Times reports the problem is worse than just the IVR, and that technical companies in particular avoid voice interactions altogether. In Tech Companies Leave Phone Calls Behind. The article points out that. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Quora, and LinkedIn have either hidden or unpublished numbers. It compares LinkedIn's system to the movie Groundhog Day.

Not everyone is blaming the technology. Doc Searls of WSJ thinks it is the attitudes that businesses have toward customers. In The Customer As a God, he writes:

"Big business continues to believe that a free market is one in which customers get to choose their captors. Choosing among AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon for your new smartphone is like choosing where you'd like to live under house arrest. It's why marketers still talk about customers as "targets" they can 'acquire,' 'control,' 'manage' and 'lock in,' as if they were cattle."

All these articles together suggest that tolerance of robotic rudeness is wearing thin. I am happy to report that after a decade of unchecked abuse there are several vendors working to correct the madness.

Fonolo provides a bridge between the user's IVR and website. Fonolo believes customers often try to resolve their issues via the website first. If a call is still needed, they must then start over at the top of the tree. Fonolo's technology attempts to retain what's been learned and transfers the caller directly to the appropriate IVR branch or queue while retaining captured information. A separate product offers virtual hold and calls back the customers when an agent is available. It's a small company, but managed to pick up the coveted Best of Show Award at Enterprise Connect 2012.

Voxeo offers cloud-based IVR solutions, and is currently running a campaign based on the idea of "Zombie-IVR". According to Voxeo, a zombie-IVR is an out-of-date system that greets customers with unhelpful, one-size-fits-all menu, insisting the options "have recently changed" when they actually haven't for years, and requires customers to enter account codes--only to be asked for them again when they give up and transfer to an agent for help. Zombie IVRs drone on like the "talking dead" to infect the caller.

AVST: The IVR's roots are in voice mail, and as one of the largest standalone messaging vendors, AVST has evolved its CX-E platform to include rich UC and CEBP capabilities. CX-E combines messaging, fax, and IVR services with APIs, database interactions, outbound notifications, and a strong inter-operability among voice systems. That platform has a far broader tool set to ensure capable customer interaction. The company recently profiled a health care provider that integrated CX-E into its business processes involving in-home patient services. The health care provider dials in from each patient's home, which both logs activities and creates varioius metrics for reports.

Gold Systems, an IVR partner for Microsoft Lync, allows a customer to interact with agents via speech and IM while the agent is on another call. One application here is that a return caller could get routed to the original agent based on caller ID, but if the agent is busy they can still interact via IM. Because their product, Vonetix 7 Voice, was built to work with Lync, enterprises can build applications that are "UC enabled" and that do not require third-party speech recognition licenses.

The bottom line is the IVR is a major customer touch-point and should provide an excellent experience. Too often the IVR is seen solely as a cost savings measure. For the most part, it didn't matter because competitors did the same. But the tide is changing, and providing a strong customer experience just might be the in differentiator. There's nothing inherently wrong with saving money, but no business survives that doesn't continuously attract new and retain existing customers.

Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and analyst at


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