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IVR in the Cloud Pays Out for Heartland

If you ever pay your bills via phone, then perhaps you've encountered a cloud-based IVR system provided by Heartland Payment Systems.

Heartland, one of the largest U.S. payment processors, delivers secure payment processing of credit cards, debit cards, and electronic checks as well as security technology through Heartland Secure to more than 300,000 businesses, municipalities, and education institutions. A Fortune 1000 company and Payment Card Industry (PCI) Level 1 certified service provider, Heartland processes more than 3.5 billion transactions annually.

Cloud communications, particularly hosted IVR, is a big part of its success story.

IVR from Scratch
IVR is a critical tool when you're in payment processing. So when Heartland decided to introduce an IVR payment processing channel, an imperative was to be able to deliver an interactive payment experience that it could easily configure and customize for each customer. Fred Byrd, director of product development for the Heartland billing solutions group, was brought on board and charged with the responsibility of finding an IVR solution that best met the needs of the company's Biller Direct payment processing business.

As a new business unit, the billing solutions group was essentially a startup within Heartland. That meant Byrd pretty much had a clean slate with which to work -- although he told me that, as a starting point, he did take a look at the IVRs in place elsewhere at Heartland. "But I wasn't saddled with an existing system that I had to use. I could go out and find a vendor of my choosing," he said.

Having once worked at a company that sold IVR systems, Byrd said he came to Heartland with solid knowledge of traditional on-premises and hosted options. And he knew that Heartland wanted to focus on its core business of payment processing and not be mired down in IVR management. "We didn't want to staff up for that," he said.

Byrd's first crack at finding an IVR solution that would meet Heartland's needs was to vet hosting providers with VoiceXML platforms. But finding one that satisfied the company's criteria proved impossible, he said.

Heartland needed an IVR that would:

Competitive pricing factored in, as well, Byrd added. "We make our money on transactions, and any per-minute cost is obviously going to increase the cost of transactions for us."

Because Heartland factored in its business requirements with its technology mandates, it increased the difficulty of finding a provider. "We could find solutions that were OK from a technology standpoint but that did not fit our business model," he said.

Some vendors wanted "six figures" to develop the IVR application, which Heartland wouldn't even own. Others wouldn't consider Heartland as a customer until it could bring them a million minutes a year, Byrd recounted. "They weren't willing to grow with us."

Cloud to the Rescue With established players ruled out, Byrd said he turned to the cloud. "I figured somebody had to have something."

That "somebody," found in a Google search, turned out to be IVR Central, which Novation Companies acquired in November 2012 and renamed Corvisa. One phone call later, and Byrd said he felt sure the cloud communications company could provide Heartland with the services it needed. He determined this in hearing how Corvisa had architected its services for scalability across multiple data centers, and in learning about its flexible application programming environment and ability to consume Web services. "And they quoted a price that I immediately saw fit the model we were looking for," he added.

Words are one thing, action another. "One of the things that sold me was that they said, 'Hey look, we could tell you all this, but let us create a demo.' And the next day, I called a number they gave me and they ran a credit card payment demo for me. That told me that the system was extremely flexible and if they could create a demo in less than 24 hours, it is probably exactly what I was looking for," Byrd described.

In short order, Corvisa wrote the bill payment IVR application that has helped enable Heartland's growth. Onboarding a merchant is painless since Corvisa designed the IVR application to be highly configurable, Byrd said. All Heartland needs to do is select the appropriate options and pull down the merchant's recorded speech from the cloud.

The system is configurable enough that no merchant requests have warranted configuration changes, Byrd said. "But if I needed to make a change, I could make edits, test them quickly, and when they passed QA, make them available within seconds of pushing them out." In such cases, Heartland would incorporate the change as a configurable option for all clients, he noted. "We're maintaining a product, not trying to create multiple custom products."

From the user side, a caller can submit a payment via check or credit or debit card. Heartland transmits that secure information over the cloud to its payment services operation, and reports back on the success, with confirmation number, or failure. "So it's an interactive payment experience that's configurable, secure, and customizable per merchant," Byrd said.

The Capable Cloud
Three or so years in, and the cloud-based IVR has not failed Heartland -- even during seasonal spikes, Byrd said. In the case of one government merchant, for example, some 20 to 30% of the 100,000 IVR payments the organization receives annually come in the week prior to each of two payment deadlines. "The system scales without any problems," he said.

"The cost savings, reliability, and scalability have been significant factors in our IVR offering," Byrd said. But the benefit that ranks highest with him is "the ability to provide solutions that address merchant needs quickly."

Although Byrd's involvement is strictly with IVR, he said that positive experience has prompted Heartland to consider how else it might take advantage of the Corvisa cloud platform. "We have a great relationship with Corvisa, and I'm confident that we will continue to find other ways to collaborate for the betterment of Heartland customers."

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