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The Future of IVR

A Sign of the Times

Is this the end of the IVR or the beginning of a new era?

Before we talk about where we are going, let’s take a moment to look back and see how cultural norms and consumer behavior helped to shape this technology and the contact center industry.

Traditional IVR

Automated Call Distributors (ACDs) were born in the 1960s.  They were industries’ answer to the growing number of phones, which had become an American staple, accompanying a 2-bedroom home in the suburbs with a picket fence and an American car in the driveway.  The explosion of television a decade earlier, combined with the heyday of the Mad Men of advertising, established the birth of consumerism.  Armed with their Bell telephones, these consumers had questions, problems, and complaints that needed resolutions.  It was a natural progression for businesses to automate the previously manual process of routing calls to the relevant departments.

With the introduction of touch-tone dialing and the Princess phone, the integration of IVRs (Interactive Voice Response Systems) into businesses ramped up in the 1970s and ’80s and were soon everywhere in the 1990s.  Toll-free numbers on catalogs and eventually every product ushered in a new era of self-service as consumers pecked their way through menus and options to get what they needed.  All was good in consumer affairs and call centers, for about 10 years.

This is where our heartfelt story of bygone days starts to take a turn.  Although this technology is deemed a contact-center mainstay for a variety of reasons, including the ability to handle larger quantities of customers and reduce costs, it also has its downside.  How many times have we all endured an IVR only to get to the end with no option that suits our needs?  It’s no wonder IVRs were voted the most annoying invention of all time in 2012.

Sure, we could point fingers at who was responsible for making these systems too bloated.

“It’s IT’s fault!”

“No, the budget was slashed!

“It was Marketing!”

The simple truth is consumer behaviors and wants had evolved beyond what technology could provide.  Contact centers were now dealing with multiple channels from mail to voice and now email.  And they were also expected to support new websites.  It was time for the IVR to progress beyond the voice channel.

IVR Automation (Conversational IVR)

As consumers’ phones became mobile – and the “cloud” didn’t just mean a rainy day – everything was going digital.  And while social media and live chat were the shiny new toys being deployed, IVR just kept showing up and doing its job – getting smarter with more integrations and hitting its stride as AI and Natural Language Understanding (NLU) took it to a new level.    

This ushered in the Conversational IVR, which brought with it many benefits including identifying consumer intent more effectively and quickly connecting customers with agents who had the best skillset for that interaction.  Customers received answers to their questions faster than they would with conventional IVR systems.  Conversational IVR also increased customers’ satisfaction and raised First Call Resolution (FCR) rates.  Even average handling times (AHT) improved as well as customer wait times.

As time marched on, consumers were becoming more addicted to their phones with new apps launching every month.  Their comfort level with speaking to technology was growing as they began using Siri, Google Voice, and Alexa on a daily basis.  Their expectations also grew as they interacted with a brand.  They expected the same ease and convenience as all the other technology they were using.

IVR Deflection (Visual IVR)

Today consumers are the most tech-savvy we’ve ever experienced, and their expectations continue to be on the bleeding edge.  As we inch closer and closer to the first version of cyborgs, armed with multiple smart devices, consumers are “connected” 24/7.  And just as we have adapted to speaking with and interacting with technology, we are now beginning to accept the effect of big data and the uncanny accuracy of hyper-relevant topics appearing on our screens.  For many, it may still seem unsettling, but in the not-too-distant future, it will be second nature and expected. 

Consumers now expect their interactions with brands to follow them from device to device seamlessly.  The automated customer experience is enhanced through Visual IVR, or “IVR deflection.”  Deflection enables you to add a multichannel experience to customer contacts, in contrast to Conversational IVR, which confines the customer and agents to the voice channel.  Depending on the circumstance, people may favor different channels.  There are occasions when verbal communication is not the greatest method for exchanging information, thus necessitating a transition to visual communication.  In the past, this required the customer to manually change channels.  In other words, hanging up the phone and restarting the communication process via email or a web browser.

Thankfully, Visual IVR opens a completely new engagement vector: the digital experience.  The digital interface of the Visual IVR provides users with a self-service experience akin to an app.  An email or text link is used to initiate the web-based experience; no downloads or installations are required.  Customers can engage with a visual interface to make menu selections, check account information, enter information digitally, and more.  While Visual IVR provides many of the same advantages as a mobile app, it essentially eliminates the barriers to client adoption.  The majority of Visual IVR deployments can make use of digital resources and tools that have already been created by the business.  Contacts can receive virtually anything that has been developed into an app or website and access it in real-time over the voice channel.  An agent can quickly move them to a designated chat, send them a coupon, or do whatever the interaction requires.  No starting over, no frustrations.

What’s next for IVR?

Although the IVR is approaching its 60s, there’s no sign of retirement for this contact center workhorse.  Many contact centers and businesses continue to have traditional and automated IVR systems running parallel to the other channels they are supporting, to suit all the preferences of their clients.  As visual IVRs become more ubiquitous, and the boomers adapt or fade away, the IVR will still be around in some shape or form.

To understand what the future holds for this industry, we simply need to look to our customers and the companies that are gaining traction.  As Millennials and Gen Z are racking up big numbers using Instagram and TikTok as search engines, they are redefining the digital experience daily.  The next generation holds the key to where we will meet our customers while catering to all their individual preferences. 

If I could predict the next great communication innovation, I would be writing my next book and planning a speaking tour.  But I don’t think anyone REALLY knows, because it will ultimately come down to where we are as a society and what makes the most sense at that time.  If Armageddon is coming as the preppers keep warning us, I guess I’ll see you in the bread line.  But I’m more of an optimist and like to lean into a future that will continue to use technology in a positive way.  Whether it will be on a Tesla smart Skele-Toe shoe phone or a tinfoil hat, I know it will be digital, highly personalized, totally portable, and require minimal effort.  And it will most likely be virtual. Beyond that, I believe the next evolution of self-service will be built on the 5 key features of Web3, (decentralization, blockchain, security, scalability, and privacy) and will be the predecessor to a completely sentient virtual agent. 

So, before you order your custom-fit Oculus headsets and launch into the Metaverse version of “Ready ‘Agent’ One,” don’t be surprised if you’re SWOTing concepts for a Discord group chat or Twitch live stream in the near future.  Or maybe you’ll be contemplating how Twitter Spaces and Spotify’s Greenroom could reduce handle times and increase C-SAT.  Regardless, in the near future as you awkwardly pose for your daughter’s latest BeReal post, confused by what’s happening, just realize you could be implementing this with your agents soon.

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call center customer experience equipment greetings IVR phone menu prompts tips

7 Ways to Bring Your IVR into the Future (or out of the past)

Not all companies and contact centers are the same size or have the same budgets.  This list has been compiled from industry trends and over 30 years of working with brands in all types of industries.  Whether you’re managing a handful of seats or hundreds of agents, choose the items on this list that will have the most impact based on your current situation.

Get to know your customer

This is probably the most underrated and underutilized tactic for most companies.  Understanding your customer and what/how they want to interact with your brand will make all your initiatives much more effective.  Take the time to speak with frontline agents to understand not only your clients’ demographics – but also their preferences.  Use this data to fine-tune your IVR and other self-service tools to optimize client engagement with the brand.

Localization & Customization

Hop on this trend and look to customize every contact as much as you can.  Leverage the data your agents are tracking in the CRM to improve the customer experience.  Meet your customers when, how, and where they want to be met, on whichever device or platform they prefer.  And do it in their language or dialect.  Nothing builds more trust than being greeted in your native language.

Automation & Conversational IVR  

If you’re still using traditional IVR, look to migrate to a conversational platform.  You must be looking at a ‘Mobile First’ approach.  Callers trying to navigate a keypad on the go are not ideal.  Provide your callers with the option to use voice commands, and this will speed up caller intent and provide a much better experience.  It will also allow for more built-in automation, which the IVR can handle and keep the call from going to an agent unnecessarily.

Branding

The IVR is the front door to your business.  Make sure it provides the best first impression possible.  Often overlooked, branding plays a key role in caller confidence.  Having the right voice that fits your brand and can serve as a “spokesman” builds callers’ trust, as they consistently hear and recognize that familiar voice while engaging with the brand.  Having clear, concise messaging increases caller comprehension and reduces miscues in the IVR.

Omni-Channel Consistency

Whenever possible, provide your contacts with a brand-appropriate experience, no matter which channel they are engaging with.  This includes the words and tone you use – from your agents to your chatbots to your IVR.  Too often brands aren’t consistent in their messaging, and your contacts can feel like they’ve called the wrong company.  Just because Marketing thought the new chatbot should sound hip or cool doesn’t mean it’s on-brand.  Find a sound that fits your brand and tweak it accordingly, depending on the technology and platform.

Regular Auditing & Tuning

How many times have you called a brand to hear three or more different voices when interacting with the IVR?  Make it a routine to call and listen to your IVR and ensure it’s being updated as you update other areas of the contact center.  The IVR can sometimes be treated like the middle child and appear forgotten as you move quickly to upgrade or implement new tools.  At least once a quarter, ensure your IVR is still providing the most comprehensible and efficient options and that it’s been updated to leverage other channels.

Visual IVR

Visual IVR unlocks the IVR from the voice channel and expands its use to all other developed channels.  Many companies are now embracing a visual IVR and realizing they should have done it sooner.  This simple technology can help to revolutionize your interactions with contacts, increasing C-SAT and reducing customer and agent effort. 

How are you maintaining your IVR? Let us know in the comments what we missed or suggestions you would recommend.

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call center IVR phone menu prompts scriptwriting tips

15 Voice Prompt Blunders To Avoid in Your IVR System

When writing voice prompts for IVR or ACD systems, clear concise communication is key. The thing about a well structured call-processing system with properly recorded voice prompts is that you just don’t notice it. What you do notice, however, is a system that is riddled with problems and errors.To ensure you’re creating a great caller experience, be sure to avoid these 15 common blunders in your voice prompt scripts:

  1. Using the Word “dial.” True story: I have never “dialed” a phone. For my whole life, I’ve pressed buttons. Now, I press “buttons” on my touch-screen phone. Think about it–when was the last time you actually dialed a phone? If you are instructing callers to dial an extension, you should switch to the term “press,” otherwise you might seem outdated.
  2. Too many menu items. As a general rule, 3-5 items should be sufficient for each level of your menu. If you have more than that, callers may become confused, unengaged, and frustrated, making work harder for your reps.
  3. Not enough menu items. Too few menu options is also a problem. If you don’t give users enough options, they may not be sure which department is the right choice for them. 
  4. Putting the extension number before the name of the person/department. A good prompt will say, “For Sales, Press 1” not “Press 1 for Sales.” Why? Callers are listening for their destination first, then how to get there. If you play the extension first, they’re not likely to associate the number with the department.
  5. Forgetting to tell callers they can enter a known extension at any time. Many repeat callers will know which extension they need to use before hearing any of the options. They might have even looked it up on your website or seen it in your email signature. Make sure you remind these callers that they can enter an extension without listening to the prompts.
  6. Neglecting an exit option. You should let callers know that number they can use to immediately leave the system and speak to a live human (during business hours, of course). This works in two ways–first, callers immediately know that there is a “real human” who can talk to them. Second, if callers know they can leave the phone tree, they’ll be more receptive to listening to your prompts.
  7. Having a long greeting before prompts begin. Time spent with an IVR system isn’t the same as hold time.
  8. Using an unprofessional-sounding voice. Professional Voice Over Talents exist for a reason: people like to hear them.Your automated answering system might be the first impression callers have of your business. Why would you use staticy, improperly recorded announcements?
  9. Not having an “after hours” variation of your prompts. When your office is closed, you should have a prompt that lets people know this and encourages them to leave a message (with appropriate menu option) or call back during normal business hours (and give hours). An after hours greeting can also include emergency contact number or direct clients to a self-service option on your website.
  10. Repeating the word “please” in every prompt. In business, proper manners are essential. On your phone system, saying “please” with every prompt is redundant and irritating. Say “please” in the first prompt, then keep your options more streamlined for easy listening. Remember–you’re writing for the ear.
  11. Using long phrasing for each prompt. It’s a prompt, not a message. Keep it short and to the point so you don’t lose caller’s attention. Think of each prompt as a call to action. 
  12. Stating extension numbers as one number. If you’re saying “Two hundred three” instead of “Two Zero Three,” you’re making a grave error and potentially going to have a lot of confused callers. It’s not that people will be looking for the button “two hundred three” on their phone, it’s that they might here two and three and ignore the zero. Plus, doesn’t it sound weird to tell callers to “Press Two Hundred Three”?
  13. Including Jargon. Jargon got its name because people don’t understand it. Unless absolutely necessary, avoid jargon in your voice prompts to make the caller experience as painless as possible.
  14. Putting frequently requested options at the end of the menu. It just makes sense to put the most frequently requested options first. If you already know what people are looking for, you should aim to deliver it as quickly as possible and move them efficiently through the rest of your call processing.
  15. Lacking Consistency. If you use inconsistent phrasing for your prompts, you’re likely to confuse callers. By changing your word choice, the caller won’t be able to follow a predictable pattern. For example, you shouldn’t say, “For sales, press 1; To reach customer service, press 2; Press 3 for reservations.” It just doesn’t make sense. 

What do you think? Have you heard any voice prompts that have made you cringe? Would you add anything else to this list?

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4 Audio Marketing Strategies for Small Businesses

Small businesses working with limited resources are often overshadowed by competition from larger businesses with larger marketing budgets. And yet, small businesses need to outshine competitors and distinguish themselves from the rest, just like the big guys. So what to do? By incorporating affordable yet effective audio solutions such as Message On Hold, Overhead Announcements, Background Music, and Podcasts, small businesses can match their larger competitors when it comes to brand awareness, customer communication, and customer satisfaction.

Message on Hold

First impressions are extremely important to small businesses. The chances of your Message On Hold being a prospect’s first impression of your business is likely, therefore should be capitalized on. By incorporating a professional and informative hold message into your business’s marketing tactics you can enhance the perceived image of your brand.  And during call transfers and peak hours, an effective on hold message has the potential to decrease caller hang-ups and keep callers on the line longer, ready to do business.

Small Business Message On Hold Ideas:

  • Tell callers about current or upcoming sales.
  • Explain what makes your business unique from competitors.
  • Answer FAQ’s.
  • Announce time-sensitive information like upcoming events or limited time offers.
  • Introduce new products.
  • Provide alternate forms of communication like where callers can find you on social media.

Podcast

A podcast is another word for audio blog. Content is delivered in an interesting, informative message that packages content and personality. Providing your target audience with useful podcasts will increase the opportunity to build a following and reach your clients and prospects. Podcasts are extremely affordable and effective. The more creative and engaging you are, the better!

 Small Business Podcast Ideas:

  • Answer FAQ’s
  • Interview an industry expert
  • Give information on upcoming events, products, or services.
  • Turn your company newsletter into a podcast. Talk about what has been going on at your company.
  • Give listeners a set of tips about a particular topic related to your business.

Overhead Announcements

For retail stores, or businesses where customers are often physically present, overhead announcements are an effective marketing tool used to target the already captive audience–in-store or onsite customers. This particular audience is already interested in what your business offers, so overhead announcements serve as the perfect marketing opportunity to further engage them.

Small Business Overhead Announcements Ideas:

  • Promote new products or services.
  • Market a product or service that can potentially cause a significant financial gain or higher profit margin.
  • Business branding
  • Announce current or upcoming sales.
  •  Inform customers about your business hours, or holiday schedules.

Background Music

For retail stores, or certain types of businesses, background music can be a productive element. If overhead announcements are not appropriate for a retail store, music is still a viable and desirable option. Music triggers emotional responses. In a retail business setting, the emotional response can enhance the shopping experience. Background music should be chosen based on the theme of your store, and should fit the interests of customer demographics, and the products and services you offer.

Background Music Information:

  • If the customer likes the music your business is playing, they are more likely to stay in your store longer and come back more often.
  • Music played loudly and at a fast tempo with increase perceived time duration. If customers are waiting in line at the register or fitting rooms, the wait time may seem longer than it actually is.
  • Softer and slower music are responded to more positively than louder and faster music.
  • Rhythm and tempo have the greatest influence on shopper experience.

Small businesses can captivate and impress potential customers using these and other audio marketing strategies.  If it can be communicated via sight, the same message can probably be communicated through sound, either to reinforce or to reach people in a non-visual setting. With professionally produced audio messages you will reach and influence more potential customers, stand out from the competition, and help your small business grow.

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IVR tips

Four Things To Avoid In Your IVR, Auto Attendant, and Voice Prompts

Voice prompt menus, IVR, and auto attendant greetings can be a helpful way to get more information to your customers. You can mention your business hours, current specials, a temporary store closing, or a charity drive that you’re going to be having in the near future. Since you may already have an idea about what you want to say on your phone script, here are a few things you will want to steer clear of:

  1. Too Many Options – It’s important to have enough options to cover the various departments you have for your customers to speak to, but you also want to keep in mind that listing too many on your automated menu can seem cluttered. The more you have listed, the more apt your are to have confused customers, and the more apt they are to end up in the wrong department anyway. If they don’t quite fit in with option one and keep listening for a better selection, but by option eight they’ve forgotten what option one even was, they may end up hitting any number just to speak to a representative. The whole point of these options is to get the customer to the right department the first time around, so make the choices clear and concise. Keep in mind who the callers are and what they tend to call for. The main menu should then be tailored to the needs of the caller.
  2. Cornering the Customer – When using an auto attendant always provide the option to speak to a representative. They may not have an account number available, or they may have questions about the information your menu is requesting from them. Allowing them to speak to a person can avoid unnecessary frustration for your customer. If they know that every time they call you they are going to end up frustrated before they can even talk to someone, they may begin to associate negative experiences with your company.
  3. Giving Outdated Information – Keeping the informaion contained with your phone script up-to-date is important to your customers. You won’t be wasting their time with out-dated information, which is always appreciated. Telling customers about the wrong hours of business, an outdated website, or a wrong address can be frustrating. Be sure if there are any changes in your company that you update the recordings accordingly. 
  4. Don’t Bury the Lead – The term “bury the lead” comes from journalism. In a news story, the “lead” is the first sentence, which concisely conveys the main point of the article. Same hold true for your phone system.  If 80% of your callers choose one option over the others, don’t bury that option in the list of choices.  Making the caller wade through other options is tidus and inefficient.  Order your menu choices in the priority which they are choosen.  Not sure which is choosen more?  As your administrator for a report, or stroll on down and talk to the agents.  They’ll let you know who’s calling and why.
  5. Your phone script should be clear, concise, up-to-date, and helpful. Customers generally call you because they are having an issue with something, and you don’t want to compound the problem — you want to solve it. Send the message to your customers that you consider their time as important as yours by never making them take longer on a phone call than necessary.
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Taking Your Presentations To The Next Level With Audio and Voice

Our world has become increasingly more digitized and with that has come a greater focus on the visual. Whether on social media (Instagram) or home entertainment (TV’s with OLED and 4K technology)–we are used to being visually stimulated. Now your average company presentation, with its tired PowerPoint slides and 1980’s clip art just won’t cut it anymore.

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Virtual Tour Audio

Though the virtual tour has been around for a long time, many individuals and businesses have not yet incorporated audio into their presentations. I have seen many virtual tours where you are given a full 360 panaromic view of a brightly colored living room or kitchen – with no voice over to serve as a guide. What could be an informative sales pitch turns into a virtual tour of a silent, almost haunted, house.

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customer experience marketing

Walk in your Customer’s Shoes (and Listen to their Auto Attendant)

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message on hold social media

Social Media – On Hold, Please!

social media, on hold, meditationYou wake up with a headache, you burn your toast, and your car is covered in snow. On days like these, how do you keep your spirits up? How do you maintain the passion for your craft throughout the work day?

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customer experience marketing message on hold

On Hold Experiment

Holdcom was recently involved in a fantastic customer service experiment. One of our long time clients hadn’t updated their message on hold program in over a year. Since the majority of their callers were return customers, they were curious whether their customers listened to the message or “tuned out” while waiting on hold.