Call Center or Value Center?

We believe every company with a call center truly wants to provide their customers great service. Being in the IVR technology business gives Acclaim Telecom Services a unique opportunity to observe successful (and not so successful) call center IVR practices.

Two observations stand out in our opinion which contribute in a significant manner to the success of a customer service organization:

First, companies that treat their call center employees as one of the most important elements in their customer support organization perform better than most.

Why? The answer is obvious. Engaged and happy employees provide better customer service. They understand the importance of their role and take pride in helping solve someone’s question or problem. A great example of this philosophy is found in how Paul Spiegelman, CEO of The Beryl Companies manages his company. In fact, Paul wrote a book titled, “Why is Everyone Smiling?” Paul shares his management philosophies punctuated with real life examples of the results of his actions. If you would like to know more you can visit the Why Is Everyone Smiling? website.

Second, build your customer service organization based on your customer’s needs, not your rules.

In the 2010 Global CEO study by IBM, three interesting thoughts emerge regarding customer engagement discussed in this comprehensive report. They are:

  • How do you plan to optimize each customer interaction?
  • What do your customers remember about each interaction?
  • What do you want your customer to remember?

In a previous Customer Experience Impact Report by Harris Interactive, further information is highlighted regarding the importance of good customer service. Nearly 70% of consumers said they ended a business relationship due to poor customer service. Consumers indicated the most prevalent root causes to this decision were:

  • Representatives that lack the skills to answer their questions
  • Being trapped in automated self-service
  • Being forced to wait too long
  • Repeating themselves

So how does all this tie back to IVR systems?

The first is thematic. IVR systems are still one of the most utilized and effective technologies deployed in customer service organizations. Over time, IVR systems have evolved to handle more complex tasks in an attempt to off-load increased demands on live agents. As such, you need to carefully plan what you want your customer to experience and remember about their interaction with your IVR system.

Second, two of the items mentioned by the Harris Interactive study apply directly to IVR systems; being trapped in automated self-service, and having to repeat information to a live agent that has already been provided to the IVR system.

As you implement new IVR applications or enhance and modify your existing system, make sure your customers do not get trapped in your IVR application. If there is no live agent available to transfer, consider stating that fact early on in your greeting message. If your IVR system is designed to handle complex queries, be sure to limit the number of responses required to achieve the desired results. In an earlier blog titled, “IVR Design Tip: The Magic Number Seven (7)” we discuss this approach.

And finally, sometimes it is the little things that irritate customers the most. If you require a caller to enter user IDs, passwords, account numbers, security answers, and more; design your system to capture and display that information when a call is transferred to a live agent.

Acclaim Telecom has assisted clients implement new IVR systems and enhance existing IVR applications since 1993. If you would like to discuss ways to improve your IVR systems impact on your customer service operation, we would welcome that opportunity.

For more information about how Acclaim Telecom Services can help request a Free Consultation.

A Brief Perspective on the Evolution of IVR Technologies

With the constantly accelerating pace of technology advances, we sometimes lose sight of what earlier introductions of now commonly used services originally looked like.  So we thought you might enjoy a brief history on the evolution of IVR technologies.

Early on Automated Call Attendants (ACD) allowed for some basic or fundamental call routing capabilities.  The auto attendant had a very specific purpose in mind; to replace the live attendant or operator and route calls.  Most common auto attendant features included routing calls to an extension, transfer to voice mail, play messages, repeat menu selections, have a default mailbox, and allow you to “0” out to an operator.  All are important features, but with limited operational intelligence. Auto attendants were almost always integrated into a PBX system.

A PBX (private branch exchange) connects the internal phones, typically for a business to the external telephone network, and through trunk lines. Because PBX systems incorporated fax machines, modems, telephones, and more, the term “extension” became widely used to refer to any end point of the PBX.  As PBX systems became more powerful, enhanced features were added, but still not to the level of current IVR (interactive voice response) systems.

It was the invention of DTMF (dual-tone, multi-frequency signaling) that provided the technical foundation for future use of IVR systems.  DTMF or touch tone phone systems were first made available to the public in 1963.

It was in the early 1970’s that IVR systems began to make headway in call centers to automate basic, repetitive tasks.  Initially call center IVR systems were tied into larger mainframe computing systems. The technology was still fairly rudimentary and expensive.  By the 1980’s a growing number of new vendors, advances in technology (both computationally and in networking) made the use of IVR systems more cost effective.  As the IVR systems became more intelligent and powerful, application and specific industry usage increased.  This was also the time where IVR functionality became more intelligent and separated from PBX systems.

One of the earlier drawbacks to IVR systems was that almost all the programming languages were proprietary.  These proprietary languages or scripting tools were unique to the specific IVR vendor and not transportable across other IVR systems.  That limitation, combined with the fact that unless you are a Fortune 500 size firm, IVR development skills are not typically mainstream skills required by most companies.  That required a customer wishing to use IVR systems to rely heavily on the system vendor to also write the applications for their use.

Speech recognition for IVR systems, also known as Automated Speech Recognition (ASR) systems have continued to gain acceptance over time.  Speech Reco (industry slang referring to Automated Speech Recognition) began to make real inroads in the late 1990’s as the underlying speech recognition algorithms improved, along with the processing power of hardware.  Speech recognition applications bring their unique set of challenges as well as benefits, and speech reco enabled applications require a different development approach from DTMF based applications.  Interestingly, the first speech recognition device was showcased in 1952, and was capable of only recognizing single spoken digits. (1)

The widespread and rapid acceptance of the internet and web based applications proved to be another inflection point in the evolution of IVR systems and languages.  The desire for more tightly integrated capabilities of voice applications to internet based applications drove the development of VXML (Voice Extensible Markup Language) and CCXML (Call Control XML).

VXML and CCXML make it possible to develop applications that work on multiple platforms (with some limited porting efforts).  VXML specifically helps IVR applications integrate more effectively with internet based applications.  The IVR application can be written by individuals who are also experienced with web based application development using XML   A major goal of VXML was to make web based applications and content available through a voice portal.

CCXML is designed to enable call control telephony support for VXML applications. CCXML provides control for how phone calls are placed, answered, transferred, conferenced, and more.

Another significant advantage of making voice applications easily web compatible is the ability to deliver services through a hosted services or cloud based business model.  By opening up these previously proprietary systems, the focus is moving from hardware to the applications and services perspective.

Early adopters of IVR technologies included the financial industry, utilities, travel industry, and other capital intensive industries with high call volume customer care centers.  Current technology advances have driven down system costs, improved reliability, enabled more effective service delivery models, which in turn have enhanced and improved IVR system usage.

However, none of these advances mean much if companies using IVR systems do not stay laser focused on improving and enhancing the user experience based on these newer technologies.

As always, the team at Acclaim Telecom would be happy to discuss ways to use IVR applications to enhance top line revenue or improve operational effectiveness.  And we promise to keep the sales pitch in the desk drawer!

1 – Davies , K.H., Biddulph, R. and Balashek, S. (1952) Automatic Speech Recognition of Spoken Digits, J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 24(6) pp.637 – 642

IVR Design Tip: The Magic Number Seven (7)

Despite what may generate lots of head nodding, most IVR systems are not as dysfunctional as a few pundits might like you to believe.  Not that there isn’t room for continuous improvement however.

Have you ever called an IVR system and initially felt  like you were led down a wrong path, or when you try to get to the right path, it takes you even deeper and farther from your goal?  Ever had so many menu choices you weren’t quite sure which option to choose in the first place? This has been a common challenge in IVR design when companies try to design an IVR system with either too many features, or try to solve too many problems through automation alone.

A recurring theme you hear from Acclaim Telecom regarding IVR design is “Keep your IVR system as simple and intuitive as possible“.

A research paper published in the late 1950s by renowned psychologist George Armitage Miller was titled, “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”. This paper suggests that seven (plus or minus two) is the magic number that characterizes people’s memory performance on random lists of letters, words, numbers, or almost any kind of meaningful familiar item.  Further research revealed that the short term memory of a person depends on the type of information being remembered, (e.g., memory is around seven for digits, around six for letters, and around 5 for words).  And unfortunately since then, time has not improved our short term memory.

The good news is the challenge of the number seven can be overcome.  Whether a huge call center or a business with just a few customer service representatives; the answer to this IVR challenge may be right under your fingers tips.  Your customer service representatives are one of your best resources for either helping design, re-design, or enhance your IVR system.  It can be as easy as asking them a few simple questions such as:

What do customers call about most commonly that are not solved with the IVR system?

Ask for the exact words the customer’s use to get assistance for the specific tasks, and incorporate them into your menus.  This will help the customer get to the option they require, without having to guess at whether it’s appropriate or not.

What are the biggest complaints about the automated IVR system?

This can be subjective, however listen carefully to the answer to see if you can determine what the true problem is.  It may be as simple as fixing menu option wording, or finding a better way to ask for account information.

What do your customers tell you would be a beneficial addition to the IVR system?

Customers will tell you what they want.  Obviously there will be some ‘pie in the sky’ requests, but for the most part the caller may say very simply, “I’d like to be able to pay my bill without having to talk to someone”, or “After four option selections I want to speak with a live agent”.

Sometimes the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) approach can be the most effective.  But if you must convey a lot of information to your customers, consider giving them an option to skip through, or trim the message to the most important of the key points and possibly allowing them a further option to hear more on that particular subject.  There’s nothing worse than being stuck listening to a message which seems endless, or worse, not relevant to their immediate needs while being forced to listen to the entire message before being able to move to the next option.

On a closing note, here is one additional suggestion we hope all owners of an IVR system perform.  Review your IVR call flow at least once every six months. Even if your business has not changed during that six month period, people’s expectations and your competitors do change.  Keeping your system fresh and current will go far in making your customers happy and showing you pay attention to their needs.

Press “9″ if you would like to hear these options again.

Operator Assistance Unavailable

IVR phone keypadCan you spot what is wrong with these messages?

“Using your touch tone keys, enter the name of the person you wish to contact starting with the last name. Press # when finished.” Or,

“To speak with someone with product knowledge, you must dial a different phone number. Please call 1-800-HLP-FAST” (Please DO NOT call this number as it is for illustrative purposes only!)

Or finally, this text message I received on my cell phone; “Call 972 – XXX-HELP if you would like additional assistance.”

Did you spot the problem?

Actually, there is nothing wrong with any of the messages if you can make the phone calls on a home or business telephone where the alphabet is clearly identified on the key pad. Anyone out there really ever take the time to memorize which 3 letters of the alphabet are on the number 5 of your phone? I certainly don’t, and the alphabet is not identified on my Blackberry cell phone numbers.

If only they had a speech recognition front end!

We all know the old saying, “First impressions are everything”. Sometimes companies overlook the most basic entry points into their companies, and miss the opportunity to maximize a positive user experience, no matter how trivial or small it may seem.

In many situations a simple application of technology brings more immediate ROI, whether measured in financial or goodwill terms. Front ending your PBX call routing systems with a speech reco application is a good example of a high use feature, valuable to almost every caller or customer, and not very expensive to implement. Plus it seems pretty obvious with more and more individuals using cell phones, and with more than 50% of all cell phones sold being smart phones, you cannot use letters to identify which number to press on your keypad.

There are a number of vendors who provide speech recognition applications for call routing applications if you happen to have an older PBX system installed and wish to upgrade. You can also look into a cloud based PBX system with integrated voice recognition capabilities that also leverage other IVR capabilities. Acclaim Telecom can help you if you wish to explore cloud based options.

But the message I want to convey is speech recognition applications do not have to be expensive or sophisticated in order to provide benefit. Take a look at all aspects of contact with your company; your main phone number, voice mail system, call center, live agent support, and mobile applications. Identify where high volume customer contact occurs, and be sure to make the user experience as easy and as productive as possible, regardless of the types of technologies employed. After all, first impressions really are everything.