IVRs and the Angry Customer:
Call Center Imbroglio Act II

by N. Ramasubramani

"Your call is important to us, please do not hang up; we are eager to speak to you" the voice at the other end spits out the sound bytes mechanically as I fret and frown. I have been on the line for ten minutes now; ten minutes during which I have been subjected to unsolicited promotional messages of the bank announcing changes in the way their IVR (Interactive Voice Response) is organized, offering me an auto loan that I do not want and of course urging me to stay on line because the executives are all busy attending to other customers. Not to mention the advertisements telling me about phone banking and asking me to "press 9 now, because our executives are waiting for your call". I wonder, if they can't speak to me for ten minutes, how come they are waiting to speak to any one else who wants a loan? Is it because I want a clarification on my deposits and that is not a priority for the bank?

I am sure many of you have gone through the scenario painted above. Needless to say this is just one example. How many times have you felt the need to go back to the previous menu but the IVR did not give you the option? How many times did the IVR tell you to 'call back later' because all the executives were busy? Have there been times when you felt like banging the phone down but realized it would be pointless against a mechanical voice? Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the IVR trap. Like a cold fusion experiment gone awry (I know, I am getting influenced by Spiderman II), the IVR trap syndrome is assuming the proportions of an epidemic and if it is not controlled immediately, companies may soon find their call centers without customers. I am dramatizing the impact, but there is good reason to it.

IVR and call centers: The origin

Call centers and the phenomenon of IVR were married together on a simple business principle: Move your non-critical tasks (and may be the Low Value Customers) to less expensive means of service and you are looking at a healthier bottom line because your executives are then free to focus on improving the business. Since most of the customer queries were in any case relating to routine issues such as the balance in an account, it did not need human intervention. And even if it did, it was assumed that a call center executive with a basic level of training could handle the customer.

The system had its advantages for the customer too. Even if he did not find any executive, the customer could - by pushing a few buttons on his telephone - complete a variety of transactions ranging from checking his account balance to ordering a check book. And he could do it round-the-clock.

IVRs and call centers: The magic mix

The combination of IVRs and outsourced call centers presented a magic that was unbeatable to the organizations. Particularly organizations who had a large number of customers found the magic irresistible. And so call centers equipped with the latest technological gizmos and bright voiced executives mushroomed. The fact that the vendors of technology were pitching aggressively only pushed the envelope further. The combination was positioned as manna from heaven. It was supposed to reduce response times, improve efficiency, free up executive time, automate non critical tasks and reduce customer attrition by reducing waiting times (sigh). So organizations small and big jumped onto the bandwagon promising the customers that 'service was now within arm's reach'. Unfortunately like all other cases of adopting a new phenomenon, this one has also spawned a number of problems, probably due to the mistaken belief that technology will substitute for customer care. Thus leading the customer into what I call the IVR Trap.

The IVR Trap: Customer is no longer king

What people do not realize is the fact that the IVR is an 'unaccompanied experience' for the customer. Unlike an aisle in the shop where the customer can stop and ask anyone including another customer for help, the IVR is a 'lonely walk' through the menu and an improperly designed IVR menu, leaves the customer trapped because it becomes a maze with no clear road maps or sign boards. Pictured below are some of the most frequent IVR traps that you are likely to encounter, if you have not done so already.

Trap # 1: Mile long opening menus: This happens when an organization wants to offer the entire breadth of services to the IVR customer. No doubt a noble intention, but remember the human mind cannot remember more than three items at a time. Your most outstanding customers will probably remember six or seven options. So when you design an IVR menu where there are seven or more options you can bet your last dollar that you are laying the foundation for an irksome customer experience.

Trap # 2: Incorrect response? We don't tolerate stupidity. This one is a gem. Forgot your PIN? Or may be entered it wrongly? Sorry mate. Call back later. After all it is for your own safety… So as you listen in horror the system shuts you out without so much as an 'excuse me'. Of course you have the option of calling again anytime. Because our IVR is available 24 by 7.

Trap # 3: Improperly mapped transaction scenarios. Another common occurrence, this one offers you inadequate choices. Sure the IVR is a medium that is limited in the degrees of freedom but what makes the problem excruciating is the fact that many a time the offered choices do not reflect all the possible scenarios. With the result that the customer is confused on his next course of action. And if this is coupled with Trap no 4, the situation becomes truly mind-boggling.

Trap # 4: Submenus without the help option. Perhaps the most insidious IVR malady, this one affects even the most professional organizations. A number of submenus are just put together without offering the customer the option of speaking to a customer care executive. The result is a choice of options that you do not want and you have to choose one or abort the call because, there is no way you can get in touch with the call center executive.

IVR: Can something be done?

Is this then the end of the IVR wave? Will we see the end of the bright voices telling us how important our calls are? I think not. Like everything else that man has invented, the IVR too is a double edged sword. Use it judiciously and it will help you cut through the clutter. Mess it up and you could be finding yourself choked out of oxygen. So how do the bright and best organizations avoid the IVR trap? What can you as a leader do to ensure that your organization does not fall into the IVR Trap? Here are some things that you can do:

  1. Prepare a call map: This is perhaps the most basic and therefore most neglected step in developing an IVR service. It does not require any high-tech device, is simple to do and can save a lot of red faces later on. Just get the team in charge of the project to make an exhaustive list of the customers' likely requirements. And then decide which of these will be offered through IVR and where a customer care executive will step in. This one step will help you avoid 90% of all the maladies that afflict an IVR solution and consequently call centers.

  2. Limit the choices on the IVR menu: This one is counterintuitive and perhaps sounds like blasphemy. But the reality is simple. People cannot remember long lists of service options and so by keeping the choices simple, you are making the customer's life easier. You may be offering fewer services, but make sure that those services are offered completely. This way the customer knows what is on offer and is prepared for it.

  3. Provide a call back option: I know this is asking for the moon, but then if you are serious about customer care, may be you should consider this. If your system 'anticipates' the waiting time to be more than 5 minutes, can't you offer to call the customer back? Ask the customer to leave his name (I am assuming that the system has a caller ID and so the number has been captured), and a customer care executive from the same center or may be even from another center can call the customer back. Good customer care demands money and effort, but the payback for those who invest is very high.

  4. Set the right expectation: Do not promise the moon with your IVR service. Tell the customer what to expect in realistic terms. Very often it is the desire to 'dress up' the service that lands most of the organizations in hot water. Setting the right expectations frees you from this trap right at the beginning.

  5. Underplay the promotional messages: The most irritating action that an organization can take is to promote something to a customer who has been put on hold. Sure it is fine to play your messages in the first minute. But never, ever play your promotional messages to a customer who has been holding on for more than three minutes. There is nothing worse than self glorification, while the customer is fretting and fuming.

  6. Audit Call trails: Once you have launched your IVR service, do an aborted call audit periodically. There is a gold mine of information waiting to be tapped there. At what point in the call did the customer disconnect? What caused him the discomfort? Do this analysis on a regular basis and you will notice that the IVR service will become a truly customer centric tool

As I said in the beginning, the IVR plus call center is a bundle offer that is too good to resist. And it would be foolish not to exploit anything that helps you offer better service while reducing the cost of service. But in taking the plunge into this wonderful world of menu driven options, prompted by recorded voices, be sure that you have applied your mind to ensure that the customer does not get out of it angry and frustrated. Otherwise what looks like manna from heaven could just turn out to be another acronym --- Idiotic Voice Response! And a device that was supposed to increase customer satisfaction and hence customer retention could end up doing exactly the opposite.


N. Ramasubramani (Ram) is a practicing loyalty manager from India. He works for Surfgold, which is a pan Asian Loyalty management company with world class IT clients such as Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Advanced Micro Devices, Seagate and many more. He has more than 20 years of experience in marketing, advertising, brand building, direct marketing and online brand building. Visit www.surfgold.com or telephone: 91-11-52399899; 91-11-52399800 Mobile:9810774676 .

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Copyright 2005 by N. Ramasubramani. All rights reserved.

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