On the Subject of IVR's

Wednesday, January 14, 2009
I work as a Systems Engineer in the telecommunications industry. One of the technologies I work with in this capacity is the "IVR," or Interactive Voice Response system.

You know - "press one to place an order, press two if you'd rather take out your own eye with a fork than navigate this menu."

But I think IVR's are underrated. A well designed IVR menu will allow you to conclude your business more quickly than dealing with an agent who's probably thinking about what she did last night instead of resolving your business. A well designed IVR menu allows you to narrow your selections to the point where if you need to speak to an agent, you get to the right agent, the first time. When I'm grumpy, I'd much rather press 1, press 2 than pretend to be chipper with some minimum wage simpleton who really couldn't give a rat's ass whether he helps me or not.

HOWEVER.

Nothing pisses me off worse than an ill designed IVR menu. Nothing. I want to punch the menu writer in the eye, and then stab them repeatedly with a sharpened pencil.

When designing an IVR menu, the Keep It Simple, Stupid principle should be full force. Your prompts should not be a minute long. Your prompts shouldn't include making ridiculously complex choices. You should have barge-in enabled.* Your prompts shouldn't result in a call routing path that resembles a Gordian Knot. And you should always provide the Alexander solution, i.e., a prompt that will allow you to speak to a live agent if you're lost or no menu choices suit your needs.

That last point is sacrilege in my industry. Transactions handled by IVR's are much, much cheaper than transactions handled by agents, so allowing a customer to "zero out" to an agent is sometimes not permitted.

But it should be permitted. Always. Not only because customers are, you know, people, and they sometimes need to talk to other people, but because there are many, many people out there who are not comfortable navigating these types of systems. Older customers, people who are not technically savvy - these folks should not be forced to deal with this technology if they don't want to, especially when it comes to essential services like Social Security or Medicare.

There are enough folks out there like me who prefer to use an IVR (when possible) that forcing somebody's Grandma to do so is just wrong.


*Barge-in is the ability to cut off the menu list by pressing the option you want, rather than forcing you to listen to the entire string of options.

14 comments:

Jeri said...

IMHO - the ratio of bad IVR implementations to good ones is about 80%/20% - or worse.

We battle our customer service dept all the time - as IT we're supposed to be implementing their requirements, and their primary goal is call avoidance/cost avoidance, NOT excellence. Still, they respect both the production support manager and me and listen to us much of the time, thank goodness.

My nominee for worst ever is C*mcast (don't want them picking this up and visiting), whose tech support 1) is several menus deep, 2) requires an automated reset of your cable telephony modem before it will connect you to anything further, disconnecting your call and requiring you to call back in and wade through the menus again. Sheesh.

I wish our company would really invest what's needed in the technology - but still, I'm happy with the progress we made last year, and our customers seem to be, too. :)

Janiece Murphy said...

You said it, Jeri. On both the ratio of bad:good as well as C*mcast.

Carol Elaine said...

I am a user who likes both IVR and talking to an actual person, depending on my needs. If I can press a few buttons and get stuff dealt with, I'm totally okay with that. But there are times when I KNOW going directly to a live person is the only way to get things resolved, which is why I'm a big supporter of the barge-in option when combined with the Alexander solution. My cell phone provider is pretty good about this, though sometimes their voice recognition software leaves a little to be desired.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is, "I agree with you, Janiece."

mom in northern said...

As a memeber of the "older crowd" that hates the 'punch one if....'

I will have to give high marks to Medco...the mail order drug folks. They have a terrific system and deal with us oldsters regularly...

Wonder who designed their system?

Jim Wright said...

Up front, I hate IVRs. Utterly hate them. I cannot express how damned much I hate IVRs, Janiece. However, it may surprise you to learn that I hate IVRs not because I'm talking to a machine, but because nearly every single IVR system doesn't come anywhere near to living up to what you've described.

I hate IVR's because they routinely and purposely become a way for an organization to distance themselves from actual customer service and and responsibility - and primarily because those systems inevitably become a method of holding me captive and wasting my time.

What chaps my ass more than anything, are IVR systems that spend ten damned minutes telling me how my call might be monitored for quality, and then tells me the specials of the days, and then tells me the business hours and the address of the main office in case I want to write a letter, then offers idiotic suggestions for fixing my problems that have no bearing on my particular issue, then gives me ten other damned phone numbers I can call, then slowly spells out the URL of the company's webpage and email address, then repeats its again, and then, finally gets to the fucking menu and have a nice day. And God help you should you press 'repeat' because instead of just giving the menu options again, it goes through the entire damned message. I swear to God, Janiece by the time I actually get to the menu I'm so fucking mad that I just start stabbing buttons randomly and screaming at whoever finally answers. Companies that implement this kind of crap should be made by law to pay for my air time and cell phone connection fees - they are capriciously wasting my time and money and their obvious disdain for their customers just plain pisses me off.

Menu first. Period.

And use simple sentences. Get to the damned point, do IVR developers get paid by the word?

"In interest of the high quality of customer service that our company is known for, and in order to ensure the highest level of customer care, your conversation with our customer care representative may be monitored by a customer care representative monitoring representative." For fuck's sake, just say, "Your call may be monitored" or better yet, don't bother to include this stupid shit in the first place, since no way, no how, never ever is any customer service outfit monitoring the phone calls. It's just a bullshit time waster to make customers think the company actually gives a shit.

Now, if IVR actually did the things you describe in the post, I'd be all for it. But it never does. And don't even get me started on the deliberately shitty "hold" music, interrupted every two minutes to tell me to continue holding and to tell me how damned important my call is - because obviously it's not. Unless I have no other choice I won't do business with any organization who uses IVR to hide from their customers.

Sorry to get all frothy and spittle covered, but you really pushed my buttons with this topic.

Janiece Murphy said...

Um, Jim? Take a deep breath, dude.

Then realize that companies that record calls for regulatory reasons are required by law to state they are doing so.

Then realize, that yes, they do in fact monitor calls for "quality purposes." Any call center worth its salt (and some that aren't) spend many thousands of dollars a year on such initiatives. Whether or not they actually do anything with the data is another matter, but there's an entire industry around call recording. If they just wanted to distance themselves from their customers, there are much cheaper ways to go about it. Plus, many industries are required to do so under the law.

But yeah, ill-designed IVR menus are the EEEvil.

Random Michelle K said...

Jim,

All I have to say that the call music around here is the Pride of West Virginia: The WVU Marching Band.

So HA!

Wendy said...

If I'm just paying a bill or reporting a utility outage that is not life threatening (no live power lines people can get fried with), the average IVR is fine.

However, I worked in real estate for several years, and one of the power companies went from a IVR that got you where you needed to go fairly quickly to a voice response system...which never understood anyone in our office. If you screamed OPERATOR, repeatedly, you might get one, often as not it didn't understand that either. Then they went to on-line account info, so we quit trying to talk to live people.

MWT said...

Ahh, recorded music. And C*mcast. They have the most annoyingest possible recorded music - it has a very jarring, staccato drum thing that hurts my ears after a while - AND they interrupt it every 30 seconds with an ad for their other services that they think I might want to buy. Which means I have to actually listen to the stupid music in case a real person has come on and I've missed it thinking it was just the ad.

Arrrr...

Jim Wright said...

I'm having a "Michelle" day - please be nice to me. Or I may hurt you

Press 1 to be nice to me.
Press 2 if you want me to hurt you.
Press 3 if you wish to express condolences for my laptop.

;)

Janiece Murphy said...

::presses zero repeatedly::

A PERSON! I want to talk to a PERSON!

Random Michelle K said...

(plays Jim a recording of the Mountaineer Marching Band)

Jeri said...

Your estimated wait time is one hour and twenty seven minutes. If you'd like to leave your name, number, social security number, account number, credit card number, and VIN number of your car, please press 1. Otherwise, please continue to hold, our representatives will be with you shortly/once they finish their World of Warcraft tournament.

mom in northern said...

For the most part I have to agree with Jim's position....

And he said so well too...