Phone IVR: Lessons and Learnings for the Digital World

By John Tenore

Interactive Voice Response (phone IVR) systems have been around since the 1970s, but brands only began to adopt them for automated support starting in the 2000s – when they became simpler to use and less expensive to deploy.

It’s easy to see why IVRs became commonplace very quickly. With their ability to identify, segment, and route callers to specific agents on a customer service team, they offered substantial cost savings and higher efficiency to customer support organizations that had relied on manual processes to manage incoming calls.

Why Customer Support Leaders Loved The Idea of Phone IVR

Once IVRs were within budget reach in the early 2000s, it seemed that every major brand (and minor one) was implementing a phone IVR. For small companies, an IVR presented an opportunity to level the ‘professionalism playing field’ with the big brands. After all, one computerized voice sounded similar to another.

Among the most popular functions of IVRs, for large and small brands alike, were the following:

  1. Personalized messages and prompts: rather than general instructions, such as “Press 1 for Sales,” systems allowed for configuration of customized greetings and prompts based on the caller’s identification.
  2. Pre-agent information collection: IVRs were able to collect general information about a customer’s needs and transfer a call to the appropriate area within the organization.
  3. Automated customer support: IVRs enabled support teams to have customers solve their own problems or obtain information without speaking with an agent.

By combining these functions, customer support organizations were better able to reduce costs while handling ever-increasing call volume. If a representative from the right department was available, the caller got routed there and handled. If not, callers could be placed in queues until a representative became available. From an internal operations standpoint, IVRs were an efficiency panacea.

Yet, from the customer’s point of view, IVRs quickly began to prove frustrating.

How IVRs Crushed the Customer Experience

In their attempt to use IVRs’ automation to collect routine information and smartly triage customers prior to engagement with a human agent, too many brands failed to consider the potential negative impact on the customer experience (CX). Suffice it to say, many customers found IVRs annoying. When encountering a phone IVR, a customer often had to spend more time on the phone, putting in more effort than ever to resolve a problem.

IVRs spat out long, detailed instructions, and incorrect selections of poorly designed decision trees often ended up sending customers to the wrong agent or multiple agents. Additionally, many customers were not expert enough to know which selection to make when a phone IVR presented them with options. In these cases, customers often made the wrong selection and ended up waiting to speak with the wrong area of the business.

IVRs also became notorious for disrupting the flow of customer support. Where once a customer could fully resolve an issue in a single call, many IVRs were configured (and still are) to prompt customers to use a completely different support channel—think “For more information, visit our website at www.companyname.com.” Suddenly, customers had to take steps in multiple channels to solve one issue, often having to input their data repeatedly when starting anew in each channel.

These types of frustrations are surely factors behind 57 percent of customers now preferring to contact companies via digital customer service channels rather than use voice-based customer support. Also contributing to the preference for digital channel support is the fact that a lot of basic information is now available online, with customers reserving the phone for only the most complex issues that require the help of a human agent.

The bottom line is this: automation has its place when applied properly. Yet, customers often call into help lines today and still fail to have their issues resolved quickly and painlessly in spite of automation. It’s the “V” in IVR that is the problem. Voice.

The World is Ready for a Routing Experience with a Better CX

Today, messaging is proving to be the most efficient channel for customer issue resolution, as routine information can be automatically collected through bots. This is not to say that voice should be abandoned as a channel. Instead, the digital equivalent of IVR — messaging-based bots — should be used as the first point of contact for the customer. Bots can collect information and route customers via digital channels, similar to their voice counterpart. Yet customers do not have to deal with being verbally misunderstood or waiting around during a lengthy recited menu until they to reach the correct option. 

The use of digital channels and bots also solves another major challenge of IVRs—the disjointed customer support journey. Customer support teams can keep a digital conversation going across any digital channel, even if the customer needs to temporarily stop the conversation and return to it later. This approach empowers customers to deal with their issues when it is convenient for them, without the need to start from scratch, regardless of lag time or channel switching.

Ultimately, while getting the customer experience side of IVR right has been a struggle, it’s not to say the idea of automating classification and routing doesn’t have merit. In fact, with the right automation set up, businesses can handle more issues with less staff—while maintaining higher levels of customer satisfaction.

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