AI: The Next Level of IVR

Lower costs versus the help of a live agent. When it comes to the pursuits of customer contact center managers and the customers they serve, their respective expectations can be conflicted. The mission for most managers is to use highly effective automated interactive voice response (IVR) self-service solutions to help deflect calls from live agents. Meanwhile, customers have their failsafe solution: Hit sero to bypass the IVR and speak with that agent.

Every zero pressed translates to higher costs for the customer service center and greater perceived satisfaction by the customer. Yet, it comes at a higher cost to both the contact center provider and the client being served.

How can both the contact center manager and the end customer find satisfaction? The answer for many is artificial intelligence. In the customer contact space, artificial intelligence (AI) applies higher-level "thinking" to traditional IVR. This automated solution empowers natural speech recognition throughout the call and an intelligent brain on the back end to better interpret and even predict user responses. As a result, customer intentions are anticipated more effectively and directly, bringing greater satisfaction and less likelihood of zeroing out to speak to a live agent.

Building on Traditional IVR

AI and IVR share much of the same DNA. Using the call mapping of traditional IVR technology, AI creates deeper, more intelligent call paths or mapping options for most customer needs. With each number on the decision tree, AI anticipates and serves up with significant certainty what it predicts the next option will be.

Imagine a customer calls an airline reservation center. The automated solution asks the ubiquitous query: "Please tell us in a few words why you're calling today. You can say, New reservations, Existing reservations, Change reservations, or something else." The questions are common, the phrasing and tone are friendly and engaging. AI translates the caller's request using speech-to-text technology and, using sophisticated algorithms, begins the call mapping.

Unlike the static, traditional tree, intelligent mapping not only anticipates customers' requests, it can proactively serve up what it believes to be the expected path. If the caller says, "No," to the responses offered, AI can reply, "OK, let's try that again," and offer other options.

Whether AI is ready for prime time is debatable, especially for industries with highly complex needs. While some providers report deflection rates approaching 70 percent, a system serving a customer changing an airline reservation might deflect one in every 10 calls. For healthcare providers, the wider variety of detailed solutions, or a customer base that might be older or non-native English speakers, for example, AI's time might not have arrived.

Conversely, travel and hospitality customers generally are more technologically adept, early adopters. Airlines, hoteliers, rental car agencies, and others with savvy customers already accustomed to interacting with an automated system instead of a live agent already are enjoying AI as a customer contact solution.

Moreover, call center solution providers that charge for each minute an agent is engaged are discovering AI is an effective solution that lowers client costs and raises customer satisfaction levels.

Ultimately, the rate of adoption depends on how quickly AI delivers on the promise of greater customer satisfaction. That said, AI's current higher cost of implementation has slowed adoption of AI within IVRs. As costs fall and the technology becomes more user-friendly, many anticipate call center adoption to grow and AI to become part of a smart and seamless customer engagement experience.

Artificial intelligence will become an integral part of IVR solutions. Today, AI is a justifiable expense for those organizations with the right customer-solution fit. In the future, any company whose needs are better served with agents on high-value or complex customer calls or whose customers would rather not speak with agents at all will embrace AI and find callers avoiding the zero button altogether.

Curt Gooden is senior vice president and chief information officer at C3/CustomerContactChannels. He has nearly two decades of experience leading IT departments for global companies. He can be reached at