Off Center

In many customers’ minds, this three-letter acronym is a four-letter word. It’s not uncommon for callers to mutter a diverse range of other forbidden words whenever interacting – or trying to interact – with a contact center’s IVR system.

But IVR is not deserving of such hatred. Unlike reality TV stars, IVR systems are not inherently flawed or evil, nor are the companies that use an IVR to front-end their contact centers. 

The reason why the general public’s perception of IVR is so negative is that so few of the systems that the public has encountered have been designed properly by the humans behind the scene. The technology itself has tons of potential; it’s what’s dumped into it by organizations overly eager to enjoy the cost-saving benefits of phone-based self-service that makes the machines such monsters.

Not all IVR systems in existence today are so beastly. Some, in fact, not only play nice with customers, they delight them and keep them coming back for more. So how have the owners of these much-maligned systems succeeded in getting callers to drop their pitchforks and torches and embrace IVR?

By adopting the following key practices, all of which I stole from a host of IVR experts and now pass off as my own:

Adhere to the fundamentals of IVR menu design. Most of what irritates and confounds customers with regard to IVR can be easily avoided. Callers often opt out of the system or hang up due to too many menu choices, confusing phrasing/commands, and fear of dying alone in IVR hell.

Here are a handful of essential menu features and functions common to the best-designed IVR applications:

• No more than four or five menu options
• The ability to easily skip ahead to desired menu choices (e.g., having the system recognize that the customer pressed “3” or said what they wanted before the system presented such options)
• Use of the same clear, professional recorded voice throughout the IVR
• (For touchtone systems specifically) Giving a description of an action/option prior to telling the caller what key to press for that action/option (e.g., “To check your balance without bothering one of our expensive agents, press ‘1’”; NOT “Press ‘1’ to check your balance without bothering one of our expensive agents.”) 
• The ability to opt out to and curse directly at a live agent at any time

Invest in advanced speech recognition. In leading contact centers, traditional touchtone IVR systems are being replaced by sleeker and sexier speech-enabled solutions. While you may not want to listen to a writer who thinks that IVR can be sleek or sexy, you should, as today’s advanced speech recognition (ASR) solutions have helped many customer care organizations vastly improve self-service, and, consequently, reduce the number of death threats their IVR system receives each day.  

I know, I know, you are thinking about how many dozens of times in the past 10-15 years you have read an article or seen a conference session titled something like, “Speech Recognition Revolutionizing Self-Service” only to find that the technology wasn’t quite up to par with the promise. Such hype used to annoy me, too. But the truth is, speech technology has rapidly matured in recent years, and is more than ready for prime time. Even if you don’t have it in your contact center, you have certainly used it while calling others, and you’ve likely witnessed it working well. 

Powered by natural language processing, ASR systems provide a much more personalized and human experience than traditional touchtone ever could. Traditional touchtone is like interacting with Dan Rathers, while ASR is like talking to Oprah. Even more importantly, ASR-driven IVR systems enable contact centers to vastly reduce the number of steps callers must take to get what they need. Customers can cut through unnecessary menu options by saying exactly what they want (e.g., “I would like the address of your call center so that I can punch the last agent I spoke to in the face”). 

NOTE: To help you better understand speech technology and achieve optimal results with your speech-enabled IVR system, I recommend you get a copy of one or both of Bruce Balentine’s books:

1) It’s Better to Be a Good Machine than a Bad Person
2) How to Build a Speech Recognition Application

Bruce is one of the smartest and funniest “techies” I know. He has no allegiances to any speech vendors, and thus never pushes any particular products.

Use CTI to ensure smooth, smart transfers. Even if your IVR system is perfectly designed and features the universally appealing voice of James Earl Jones, many callers will still want to – or need to – speak to a live agent featuring the universally less-appealing voice of a live agent. And when this happens, what’s universally aggravating to callers is – after providing the IVR with their name, account number, social security number, height, weight and blood type – having to repeat the very same information to the agent to whom their call is transferred.

To avoid such enraging redundancy – and to shorten call lengths/reduce costs – leading contact centers incorporate CTI (computer telephony integration) technology into their IVR system. These applications integrate the voice and data portions of the call, then, with the help of magic fairies, deliver that information directly to the desktop of the agent handling the call. With today’s technologies, it’s really quite simple (though, granted, not always cheap), and the impact on the customer experience is immense. Rather than the caller starting off their live-agent interaction with a loud sigh or groan, they start off with the feeling that the company might actually have a soul.

Regularly test and monitor the system. Top contact centers keep a close eye on IVR function and callers’ interactions with the system to ensure optimum functionality and customer experiences. 

One essential practice is load-testing any new IVR system prior to making it “open for business”. This involves duplicating actual call volumes and pinpointing any system snags, glitches or outright errors that could jam up the system and drive callers nuts.

Once the IVR system is up and running, leading contact centers frequently test it by “playing customer” – calling the center just as a customer would, then evaluating things like menu logic and speech recognition performance, as well as hold times and call-routing precision after opting out of the IVR. To give such testing a truly authentic feel, the tester – after opting out of the system and being transferred to an agent – proceeds to express to the agent how he’d rather have oral surgery without any anesthesia than have to interact with the IVR ever again.

Some contact centers have invested in solutions that automate the IVR-testing process. These potent diagnostic tools are able to dial in and navigate through an interactive voice transaction just as a real caller would – except with far less swearing – and can track and report on key quality and efficiency issues. Many other centers gain the same IVR-testing power by contracting with a third-party vendor that specializes in testing self-service systems.

Internal IVR testing alone is insufficient to ensure optimal customer experiences with the IVR. The best contact centers extend their call monitoring process to the self-service side. Quality specialists listen to live or recorded customer-IVR interactions and evaluate how easy it is for customers to navigate the system and complete transactions without agent assistance, as well as how effectively the IVR routes each call when a live agent is requested or required. Today’s advanced quality monitoring systems can be programmed to alert QA staff whenever a caller gets entangled in the IVR or seems to get confused during the transaction. Such alerts enable the specialist – after having a laugh with his peers over the customer’s audible expletives – to fix any system glitches and perhaps contact the customer directly to repair the damaged relationship.

JR Hardenburgh
10/7/2010 10:39:13 pm

Good insight on IVR design. A true measure of success is the "containment rate" defined as the number of callers that get what they want without leaving the IVR. Banks live for this number to be over 85%. Take care.

10/7/2010 10:49:19 pm

You are correct, JR. I've also heard it referred to as "completion rate". (The opposite is "opt out" rate.)

85%? Sounds like a pipe dream to me, but then again banks definitely lead the way in automation.

Thanks for your input!



10/8/2010 10:10:08 am

Totally agree Greg, it is not the IVR but those that configure them that are to blame. We don't find it unusual to find failure rates of around 25% in some IVR systems with poorly thought out configuration and self service options backed up by total neglect in terms of monitoring.
We haev been distributing a free IVR health check with some success for a while. Anyone can download it for free from our website ( or they can e-mail the office at and put IVR Healthcheck in subject line

And keep up the great site Greg, look forward to the book

10/8/2010 10:21:18 am

Thanks for sharing your insight, Steve, and for letting us all know about the free IVR health check. Sounds like a great resource -- I'll be sure to check it out soon!

By the way, I'll be on your side of the planet next month; going to Sydney for three weeks in November to visit family. I'll likely still be jet-lagged when the holidays roll around!



4/18/2011 04:52:43 am

Good post, Greg! May I add that a lot of times the IVR may be well-designed, but the frustration arises when the callers leaves the IVR and stays in queue (e.g. on-hold). When long wait times are occurring, the IVR often gets the blame, but a lot of times it's not the IVR's fault. A lot of times the IVR doesn't queue calls but it's the ACD (automatic call distribution) system that does.

When that happens a lot, it's time for the contact center to focus on WFO (workforce optimization) and/or additional technology (callback, virtual queuing) to alleviate such caller frustration.

But yes, good IVR design is often a good step in the front-end to improved customer service.

4/18/2011 05:07:54 am

Great input, Eugene. That's true -- in fact I'm planning on blogging about the benefits (and potential pitfalls) of virtual queuing in an upcoming "Off Center" post. I may also feature a call center doing it well (if I can find one!) in an upcoming "Contact Centerfold of the Month" column.

Thanks for your comments and insight!



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