Customer-Friendly IVR: Not an Oxymoron


In a perfect world, every time you dialed a call center, you'd be quickly and seamlessly connected with a customer service agent who could easily solve your most complex problems, who'd ask if there was anything else he or she could do for you (and really mean it) and maybe even offer some pleasantries to brighten your day (and really mean it). Good luck with that fantasy, unless maybe you're calling Zappos.


Problem is, consistently providing that kind of service is expensive. Which is why so many companies use contact centers located in low-cost countries and/or interactive voice response systems (IVR) and/or just make it plain difficult to call them in the first place.


Unlike some people, I harbor <strong>no ill feelings toward IVR</strong>. In listening to the typical IVR menu, one thing quckly becomes obvious: Way too many people pick up the phone instead of looking online or using other means to ferret out information such as a company's mailing address or operating hours. Similarly, way too many people do the same thing for transactions more quickly and easily conducted online, such as checking account balances or making payments. I know this isn't always the case, and I realize company Web sites do go down occasionally -- sometimes for extended periods -- so human intervention can be needed for basic transactions. Still, I bet that many people calling companies really shouldn't be.


Does that mean I will happily cede my opportunity to speak with a person when necessary? No. Nothing makes me angrier than IVR menus that offer no options for human contact. And I seem to encounter more of those all the time.


While those infuriate me, I agree with Wim Rampen writing on Customer Think that there's plenty of room for IVR in customer-friendly call centers. In many cases (like the examples I offered above), customers can solve their own problems faster than an agent can.


And as Rampen points out, when integrated with a company's CRM systems IVRs can provide agents with relevant information even before the agent picks up the call. Some IVRs can also route customers to agents best suited to handle their problems. This means IVRs can minimize the chance you'll have to repeat the same information to several different agents before successfully connecting with one who can help you. Thus, connecting IVRs to your CRM systems is a best practice.


Rampen offers more good suggestions. Namely:

  • Don't offer so many menu options that you frustrate the customer.
  • Improve your forecasting and planning capabilities, so customers don't wind up waiting in long phone queues.
  • Make sure your online self-service capabilities are so good most customers will only pick up the phone when absolutely necessary.


Readers chimed in with some additional ones:


  • Let customers simplify the menu when possible.
  • Make sure customers have option to speak to an agent (Yes!)


I also like an idea put forth by Shaun Smith, also on Customer Think: Inject some humor and corporate personality into your IVR systems. He offers the example of The Geek Squad, which at one time had an IVR system with a menu option that said something like, "Press five to hear a PC that has stopped working being fired from a cannon into a lake full of hungry piranha fish." Customers that pressed five (probably quite a few of them, I'd bet) then heard an explosion, a whoosh, a splash and what sounded like a piranha feeding frenzy. Writes Smith:


What that option says is "We know how frustrating it is for you when your PC stops working. Have a little fun with it to de-stress." It's small but memorable -- and low-cost, incidentally -- things like customizing your on-hold message to actually add value to the customer that will, step by step, move us towards next generation distinctive experiences delivered through the contact center.