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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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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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Still Talking After All These Years

A reflection on our 30 year anniversary and building an industry.
By Andrew Begnoche Director of Operations at Holdcom

February 7th, 2017 CDM Studios, New York, NY30th Anniversary Blog.jpg
“Let’s stop there for a second,” interjects the engineer as he pushes the talk back mic in the main studio at New York City’s CDM Studios, waiting for feedback from the writers and producer. As long time creative collaborators and business owners, Harvey Edelman and Neil Fishman banter back and forth about the performances during the recording of a ground-breaking audio book musical project they’re pioneering. 

As I watch Neil and Harvey work through their creative process on an adaption of their musical version of Rumpelstiltskin, a story about a man who spins straw into gold, I can’t help reflect on our journey and how we’ve been trying to spin our own straw into gold at Holdcom. In order to best tell that story we need to go back to the beginning.