Conversational IVR Design: Moving Beyond Containment to Genuine Customer Engagement


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Businesses and other organizations that have automated customer service functions through interactive voice response (IVR) systems have historically been looking to save money by minimizing the need for live agents. But that focus on operational efficiency has evolved in recent years. Enterprises today increasingly recognize that a well-designed IVR can not only save money but also offer a customer service experience so good that it actually fosters brand loyalty and boosts sales.

One critical reason to expand expectations for what can be achieved in the voice channel is that consumers are demanding more sophisticated self-service capabilities across all touch points, and the contact center remains the top choice for resolving customer service needs.

Recent studies have shown that the stakes are high when it comes to providing quality self-service. Eighty-three percent of respondents say the quality of the IVR impacts their opinion of and loyalty to the company. As contact centers become escalation centers, organizations are expected to provide self-service for even complex interactions in a way that's both easy and effective.

That changing consumer expectation is a major reason that so many organizations are upgrading to a new category of IVR—conversational IVR, which enables conversational solutions and enables callers to use everyday language to accomplish a variety of tasks, just as if they were speaking with a live agent. By using natural language understanding (NLU) technology, data integration, predictive analysis, and advanced dialogue design, conversational IVRs can understand callers' meaning and intent and respond intelligently to less structured, conversational input throughout interactions.

Conversational IVRs also leverage growing consumer familiarity with virtual assistants, such as Siri, in smartphones and cars. These have conditioned people to feel comfortable conversing with devices to get accurate, personalized information quickly. As conversational IVRs become the norm for leading companies in customer service, consumer tolerance for more rigid, traditional IVR designs is waning.

How to Deliver a Fast, Frustration-Free Experience

Successful conversational IVR implementations often begin with a future-state analysis: What would the ideal customer service experience be like for my callers? Thoughtfully answering this question allows organizations to choose the conversational IVR technologies and design that will enable them to deliver that experience. It's important to keep in mind that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, but the good news is that an effective conversational IVR can be tailored to meet each organization's unique goals

For example, Delta Air Lines wanted a personal, proactive IVR experience that would acknowledge and address each specific customer's needs quickly and effectively. Delta designed its IVR to greet callers by name and immediately offer personalized options. This approach is faster and less frustrating than requiring customers to identify themselves and run a touch-tone gauntlet before finally getting to what they need.

To provide an easy, personalized experience, the IVR needed to interact with Delta's other systems. Delta's IVR can use caller ID to get a passenger's SkyMiles account information and learn that the caller's flight was canceled. That enables the system to greet the caller by name and immediately offer alternative flights—the kind of frustration-free experience that fosters brand loyalty, not to mention the business benefits of an achieved ROI within a year.

Organizations can also make the customer experience more natural by giving their new IVR insights into what customers do in other channels. Suppose someone logs on to his bank's Web site to check his account balance and finds an unexpected transaction, prompting him to call the bank. Through connecting the data sources for both channels, the IVR is contextually aware of his recent Web visit and starts the call by immediately asking if he's calling about the recent transaction on his account.

Banks are leaders in the growing trend of using advanced IVR technologies to free customers from the hassle of remembering and providing their passwords, PINs, and other account-specific information. For example, as Banco Santander México looked for ways to provide an easier identification and verification process for its customers, the organization turned to voice biometrics to authenticate callers by simply comparing their voice to the voiceprint they registered when they became customers. That cut authentication time by more than half, providing a simpler customer interaction, while saving $1 million annually and freeing 53 agents to focus on other tasks.

Banco Santander customers say the new system is more convenient than PINs, and that kind of positive experience also can boost an organization's top line. When callers aren't frustrated by authentication or having to repeat what they just entered on the business's Web site or wade through layers of touch-tone options, they're less likely to churn and more receptive to upsell recommendations. Meanwhile, contact center staff also benefit: Fewer annoyed customers make an agent's job that much easier, which helps minimize agent turnover.

A conversational IVR also can be an effective way to gracefully accommodate surges in call volumes. For example, the natural gas utility CenterPoint Energy upgraded its IVR to incorporate predictive call intent so it could quickly provide information to customers when they need it most: during storm-related outages. The previous IVR was a touch-tone maze that made it tedious and time-consuming for customers to identify what they wanted and get help.

The new IVR uses caller ID to look up the customer's location so it can immediately provide information about restoration efforts, reducing average handle time by nine seconds. The experience is so good that 70 percent of customers who were identified by predictive call intent as having an outage opted to self-serve, alleviating pressure on contact center staff who otherwise would be overloaded by outage-related calls.

What's Next?

For many organizations, the IVR has been a foundational component of their customer service experience and strategy. That position won't disappear for the IVR, even as customer interactions via mobile apps and Web sites increase rapidly. But the new multichannel reality does place an emphasis on both the importance of a consistent experience across customer touch points and the opportunity to extend a common expectation for how consumers can interact with organizations. The same NLU and dialogue capabilities being applied to the conversational IVR can support other channels as well, allowing customers to express themselves simply and naturally whether by phone, mobile device, or online.

And increasingly, the line between these channels is blurring as multichannel proactive notifications are integrated with the inbound IVR, or as new capabilities like visual IVR enable callers to simultaneously use both voice and visual cues to accomplish tasks that were previously impractical to automate by phone.

The bottom line is that as customer service options change to meet customer needs, IVRs must also adapt. Fortunately, advances in supporting technologies and design capabilities have kept pace with customer demand. Organizations that want to provide their customers with exceptional experiences, even in traditional channels, have an unprecedented tool set from which to draw, enabling a more conversational, proactive, and flexible approach to IVR than ever before.


Amy Livingstone is general manager of contact center solutions and strategy at Nuance Communications' Enterprise Division.