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IVR Feature Articles

November 03, 2010

In Defense of the Humble IVR System



By Tracey E. Schelmetic, TMCnet Contributor


A typical customer service call that reaches an agent costs companies $3 to $9 depending on the industry, says Melanie Polkosky, a psychologist for International Business Machines Corp. who helps design automated customer-service systems. A call that's handled through the automated system only costs five to seven cents.”


That quote, from a Wall Street Journal article, does little to endear the contact center industry or, more specifically, the IVR industry, to the general populace (even if most of the general populace has never heard the term “IVR”). A curmudgeonly blog by Brad Tuttle for TIME today bemoans how low customer expectations have become nowadays. Tuttle cites an anecdote that insurance company Aflac recently changed the voice on its IVR: from the traditional Aflac duck, voiced by actor to Gilbert Gottfried, to a middle-aged female voice. The switch resulted in a reported seven percent improvement in Aflac customers' perception of the quality of customer service they received from interactions with the company. Tuttle editorially shakes his head at this.

“Aflac and customer service systemization specialists surely point to the improvement in customer satisfaction ratings as a huge success. But me, I look at this as another example of how low customer expectations are nowadays. We've become accustomed to absolutely awful customer service to the point that we view any effort—even one as silly and meaningless as a homier voice recording—as an improvement,” moaned Tuttle.

Of course, no one ever implied, in the article or otherwise, that Aflac had bad customer service to begin with. Tuttle isn't decrying poor-quality IVR service, he appears to be decrying IVR service, full stop.

The truth of the matter is, studies have shown that most people don't mind dealing with an IVR, as long as it's well designed and ultimately helps them answer their question, complete their task or solve their problem, which many nowadays do. One of the best customer service experiences I have ever had involved the toll-free number that addresses lost baggage issues for American Airlines. While the humans at American Airlines lost my luggage for 24 hours, the speech-recognition-enabled IVR on the lost-luggage line (and I do not know whose speech technology I was dealing with; I wish I did) couldn't have been more helpful. It worked exactly as it should have: it recognized me, quickly determined my problem, gave me correct information and did not leave me mired in menus I didn't need, or having to repeat my responses multiple times.

In the case of Aflac and other companies, many people forget that companies with call centers are subject to market-force economics, too. Overstaffed contact centers cost businesses money, and those high costs will almost certainly be passed on to customers and subscribers. When we buy a shirt at a discount store, our expectations are limited to purchasing a good shirt and being able to return it if it doesn't work out. What we don't expect is a custom tailoring job, a dressing room paneled in walnut and a glass of champagne while we're trying on the shirt. Save that for the shop on Fifth Avenue, where we expect the clothing to cost ten times as much.

While I agree that there are few things more annoying than wrestling with a poorly designed IVR, encountering one that does its job properly is, if not a pleasure, a satisfactory experience: it means I don't have to make small-talk with a stranger – sometimes before my first cup of coffee, it means I don't have to wait on hold for a human and listen to “Lite Adult Favorite Hits FM,” and I don't have to keep the tone of my voice civil if something genuinely worth getting irritated over has put me in a less-than-civil mood. IVRs don't mind if you're crabby.

Back to Mr. Tuttle. Without trying to sound insulting, I suspect that he and many emphatic critics of IVR systems are “of a certain age.” Today, most heavy users of mobile technology and the Internet are used to “do-it-yourself information gathering” – after all, what is the Internet except a giant source of DIY information?

And back to Aflac: companies like Aflac, Geico and Progressive offer discount insurance for the simple reason that they are often very DIY in nature when it comes to administrating subscriber insurance policies. For folksy, face-to-face insurance support, there are neighborhood insurance agents: no pressing of buttons or saying “one for English” necessary. But like most things in life, the extra service comes at a premium.

Welcome to the age of information.



Tracey Schelmetic is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of Tracey's articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi


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