Solving the Top Five Pet Peeves of IVR Callers

by Mark Camack, Principal, IVR Doctors & Peter Brandt, Principal and Co-Founder, IVR Doctors

We once heard a very smart marketing guru say:"If you think your customers are acting irrationally, you don't understand your customers!"

This extends, without question, to the world of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems, as:

  • "If you think your callers are acting irrationally – pressing zero, doing "strange things" to bypass your system, or going down the "wrong" call path – you don't understand your callers!"
With 20 years of face-to-face interactions with thousands of real callers to real automated phone systems, in our IVR Usability Tests and IVR Focus Groups, we have empirical proof that this statement is true. Callers act with impeccable logic – even when that flies in the face of expensive technology that was supposed to provide for "better and faster" service for your callers and operationally efficient, self-service optimized call paths to help your call center's bottom line.

To examine the reality of why callers have a chip on their shoulder, we need not go any further than "Joe" the cop, in Reno, who told us, when asked about his predisposition toward automated phone systems, "I do everything in my power to defeat them!" Since 'Joe' is not alone, why is it that we hear such sentiments consistently and from coast to coast? Throughout North America, and across the demographic spectrum, callers' cynicism towards automated phone systems runs deep.

Callers' Pet Peeve #1:

A caller enters or says an account number, phone number, etc. into the automated phone system, only to have the representative they reach ask for the very same information!

This one act on the part of IVRs has subverted the perception of intelligence of all automated phone systems, whether you're an offender or not – guilt by association! And it's happened to every single one of us, truth be told. Callers don't know about CTI, or screen pops; don't understand about the possible links to privacy laws, the Patriot Act, FOIPPA, etc., and, frankly, don't care. All they know is that this "smart" system ain't very smart... "So why should I play along with yours, or any system like it?"

Ironically, this cross-industry, cross-modality perception and "chip on their shoulder" bias is the building block for:
Solution #1:
Callers' expectations are very low regarding the intelligence of automated phone systems, so the minute your IVR exceeds these expectations, you're on your way to success!

A "simple" thing like a successful screen pop and solid rep training – "Mr. Smith, I see you have a reservation with us to fly to New York today. How may I help you?" – begins to chip away at a caller's cynicism. Finally, technology is being used for your callers, and is not a punishment to your callers.

Callers' Pet Peeve #2:

Pressing zero or saying REPRESENTATIVE often is met with "That is an invalid response. Please try again."

In this nanosecond-world of expectations, hiding your representatives behind a veiled curtain of technology is a failed strategy, as frustrated callers will find a way to get to your representatives – typically down call paths that are not optimal (and less traceable) to you, or convenient for them - and they'll come in more "loaded for bear" than when they originally placed their call. This is hardly a formula for achieving caller satisfaction and first call resolution (as callers are more likely to come on asking for a supervisor, often leading to a call back).

Ironically, in the very best-in-class systems that we've helped – and whose operational metrics and caller satisfaction numbers both rise (they are not mutually exclusive goals) – zero/REPRESENTATIVE is always available, though rarely stated!

Solution #2:
Offering IVR menus and call flows that are logical, intuitive and easy to use, or - what in our IVR Workshops - we turn into our mantra of having menus that are "Clear, concise, and mutually exclusive."

If you do this – and we realize, this is not a chip shot – then callers are never frustrated. However, if they do press zero or say REPRESENTATIVE (or the many speech variations on "Get me a human"), then transfer them immediately to a representative. It will meet, or even exceed, your callers' expectations, and you'll be able to measure more precisely where your IVR system's "pressure points" are! The challenge, then, is to design a system where callers are never frustrated enough to look to bypass it – and it can be done!

Callers' Pet Peeve #3:

Speech recognition doesn't really work that well.

This is, as one client told us, "the dirty little secret" of the automated phone system world, the emperor-wears-no-clothes reality to the supposed silver bullet technology solution that speech was going to be.

Solution #3:
Offer "press or say" modality interchangeably, throughout all calls (without ever defaulting or forcing callers into one or the other).

While speech vendors have been resistant to this concept, callers across industries have been driving the move to "press or say." They tell us they want choice, just as they have in all facets of their lives today. And, despite a jaundiced view of speech, many are beginning to see that speech offers the promise of IVR level compression – say "PROGRAM X" or "ACCOUNT BALANCE" at the Main Menu, and jump right to the application, or the answer, without having to press any touchtone buttons at all!

Speech recognition is a double edge sword, to be sure. It offers great promise, but can be a problem child to manage. Grammars and vocabulary are difficult to administer, especially with a growing diversity in demographics, language, and regional dialects, etc. So, it's not for the faint of heart; and it's not cheap to buy or maintain, in spite of what the vendors will tell you that you'll save in call containment. It's like a child – you'll both grow together, forever, and there are growing pains, to be sure.

One very smart client of ours uses the first few seconds of the call – in which they have a touchtone-only Residential vs. Commercial customer split – to evaluate the caller's ambient, background noise. That is, speech is turned off for the first few call seconds, then turned on with a customized speech calibration for each caller. It turns out that callers don't even realize the original split was touchtone-only, and they seamlessly move to the "press or say" dual modality of the system from the Main Menu and beyond. This is very smart design, indeed!

Callers' Pet Peeve #4:

Lots of mentions of the company's Web site in the IVR call path.

We've long taught in our IVR Workshops that an automated phone system's call flow is not the place to push marketing messages. A typical caller reaction: "I'm on hold so they can hawk their products and services to me...argh!" This extends to the sometimes gratuitous, repeated "call shedding" pushes to the company's Web site.

We've never seen compelling, empirical proof that this works, and even if it did for 10, 20, or 50% of your callers, it means that the other 50%+ have their interaction slowed down by the message. And, it can send an unintended message, such as your representatives are not there, or that service levels in your call center have been reduced.

Solution #4:
Offer a judicious mention of your Web site, one mention while the caller is on hold (with a minimum estimated hold threshold of 2-5 minutes), suggesting that the call path they are on (e.g., to start, stop or transfer their service) can also be completed on the Web.

Ultimately, callers tell us, they chose to call the company, and not to use their Web site, for a reason. IVRs should not be used as marketing and communications vehicles. Their purpose is to be "Point A to Point B" utilitarian mechanisms to direct callers' questions or complaints, ... and the best IVRs are not memorable. It's your overall service that should be the positive memory!

And, by the way, if and when you promote your Web site in your IVR, it's imperative that you make sure the Web site's usability and functionality is robust and actually works. We've encountered and heard about more than one IVR where the Web site that was pushed was very user un-friendly, leaving customers doubly dissatisfied!

Callers' Pet Peeve #5:

"I don't hear the reason I'm calling."

This is the number one reason why callers don't press or say the "obvious" (to you) choice. You can see it in the role plays we hand them during an IVR Usability Test – where your callers, in real time and in front of you, are given typical call tasks for your industry/company.

Solution #5:
Bring your callers into the design loop (but don't make them system developers).

You can learn a lot by listening and observing. Callers in an IVR Usability Test have a camera on their face and another camera on the phone's touchtone pad. When a call goes awry, they typically say they didn't hear an option for them. Sometimes, it's a matter of menus that use "industry speak" instead of customer-centric wording. Other times, and most often, it's the lack of a catchall option at then end of each menu. (Hint: You always want a catchall option at the end of every menu. Otherwise, callers will look to press zero, or say REPRESENTATIVE.)

While many customers will say, "Just put a zero option at the top of every menu..." don't do this. This is where good design trumps this obvious, unreasonable desire.

In the end, good menu and call flow design is a high-end, sophisticated game of "cat and mouse," and "leading the horse to water." It's as much about psychology as it is technology. We have 20 years of applied human factors and usability testing to prove that even technophobic callers, like "Joe" the cop, can, and will, use automated phone system self-service functionality – if you make it easy, obvious, and logical.

It's as "simple" as that!

Mark Camack, Principal - IVR Doctors; 503-449-5490
Peter Brandt, Principal and Co-founder - IVR Doctors; 843-849-7856

Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.