Interactive Voice Response: IVR Systems by Design

Following up on our previous blog, Why IVR is So Important for SMEs VoIP Systems, today we’ll take a deeper dive into the actual design of IVR systems. And to that end, the software consultancy firm Software Advice — who’s advised more than 160,000 software buyers across various vertical markets — will guide us through a comprehensive look at this technology’s best practices.

Designing Minds. . .
When determining what constitutes high quality IVR design, SA decided on a methodology that would put them face-to-face, or should we say ear-to-ear with the IVRs of firms who’ve designed IVR systems that effectively work for their companies. In so doing, they called the IVR systems of 50 customer service oriented companies in the Fortune 500 to collect data and metrics on how best to implement IVR technology.

They followed this up by speaking directly with specialists in operations, research and call center benchmarking (the scientific comparison of call center performance metrics) to get their feedback on best practices for IVR design. The top design features included the review of options on reaching agents, top menu items, the timing of introductory greetings, dial pad response and what type of automated voice to be used.

To Speak to an Agent or not to Speak to an Agent. . .
 There is a fine line in designing a system that uses this technology optimally, since automation is the basic tenet of IVRs. According to the report, it was noted that one of the basic goals of effective IVR systems was to help customers find answers to their questions and complete routine tasks on their own. When a customer “zeroes out” (i.e., dials “0” or speaks a response that takes them to a human agent), this purpose is defeated.

However, as important it is for call centers to keep track of how many callers are able to complete self-service (DIY) tasks without zeroing out, Nitzan Carmeli, an operations research fellow noted that “this metric has no value if you don’t consider the customers who abandon IVR systems (altogether) without getting any relevant service.”

To help businesses determine an approximation as to ‘when’ is the best time to zero out, the Software Advice team repeatedly pressed zero on the dial pad IVRs or requested to speak to an agent when voice recognition was offered – until they actually reached a human being. The results were collated in this above circle graph.

As a result, it appeared that most companies in this study or 28% averaged 2.94 menus before allowing the caller to speak to a live agent, whereas an additional 35% allowed callers the option on the 1st or 2nd menu. Pressuring callers to go to a 4th or further menu was used less an less by the companies surveyed.

Limiting Top Menu Items. . .
According to the report, it appears there’s been an ongoing debate among specialists in IVR design that concerns both the number of options offered in the initial menu as well as the depth of the IVR’s menu structure (i.e., how many menus a caller navigates in order to complete a task).

The conventional wisdom regarding these options according to Bruce Belfiore, CEO and senior research executive at BenchmarkPortal (a leading firm in call center benchmarking) is that the branching tree structure of an IVR “should be no more than five [options] across [in the top menu] and three [submenus] deep. In other words, you give up to five options to callers, and when they push one of those, they can go down as many as three submenus.”

The report’s research however indicated that these options might be skewed dependent on a company’s business model and that most IVRs provided between two and five options in the top menu.

Timing of Introductory Greetings. . .
 IVR systems almost universally include introductory messages identifying the company the caller is contacting. While such messages can be great opportunities for promoting your brand, they can also bore and frustrate callers — and possibly prompt them to hang up. This was backed up by this research study, as the vast majority of the Fortune 500 companies the SA group called kept their introductory messages under 7.9 seconds.

Dial Pad Response. . .
Though the term IVR includes the phrase “voice response,” the majority of IVR systems that the SA team called, in fact relied heavily on the dial pad as the sole input method.

Only 28 percent of the IVR systems they called offered voice response as the sole input method. In fact even the majority of IVR systems with speech recognition capability also allowed callers the option to switch to dial pad input.

It was also noted that speech recognition has historically been a bug-prone technology, and that if companies favored this option, they’ll need to look for a solution with advance speech recognition features.

Female Voice Preferred. . .
All of the IVR systems that SA phoned used human-sounding versus “robotic” voices, such as the infamous voices popularized by MacInTalk, Apple’s pioneering speech synthesizer. But more importantly, this study determined that 74% of companies utilized female rather than male voices, most likely because research has shown that the human brain tends to prefer female voices.

With that said, more than 25% of the IVR systems they called employed male voices, which indicates that the decision about which gender to use is most likely dependent upon the demographics of a company’s customers.

Telzio has a default recording for the voicemail and conference-room greetings that uses the female voice. However, there’s no default recording for the IVR menu, because that’s specific for each business.

Other Factors. . .
Software Advice’s study also researched other factors important for IVR design inclusive of what submenus to include or exclude, the use or non-use of branding statements and the issue of hanging up on customers.

Important to note that all the best practices determined by Software Advice’s report can be accomplished with Telzio through our Call Flow Editor.

Using Telzio, there’s an endless number of ways companies can set up a call flow (the route of a caller when they dial in). Business owners can set up multiple IVR menus. And in so doing can transfer the caller to different actions like forwarding the call to multiple live agents simultaneously (first to pick up) or sequentially, forwarding the caller to another IVR menu, or forwarding the caller to an extensions directory.

Ron is part of the marketing team at Telzio, covering everything from tips and tech for growing businesses to customer success stories for the Telzio blog.