Did Steve Jobs Have a Major Impact on the IVR Industry?

It may be hard to find an industry in which Steve Jobs did not in some manner directly influence. We at Acclaim Telecom believe that is true for the IVR industry. The amount of impact on the IVR industry depends on how much direct influence you wish to credit Jobs.

Steve Jobs is universally recognized for his brilliance in transforming technology products into an art form; that combined with his obsessive focus on quality and user experience. From the beginnings of Apple’s introduction of the Macintosh computer, to the acclaimed release of the iPod, iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad; each proved highly innovative and disruptive in their respective industry. But I have to wonder if Steve Jobs really knew the impact the iPad and iPhone would have on the business enterprise.

So what does all of this have to do with the IVR industry?

Early on IVR systems were clearly the dominant alternative of providing customer support without speaking with a live agent. The adoption of the iPhone and iPad contributed significantly to the creation and accelerated acceptance of alternative avenues of providing customer support services. Mobile devices allowing easy access to web enabled services, SMS text capabilities, and the ability to receive email on either the iPhone or iPad (and initially on the RIM Blackberry) have decreased the reliance on IVR systems.

We are not predicting the demise of the IVR industry however. While IVR may not be perceived as sexy or cool as “iTechnology”, not everyone has a smart phone or electronic tablet. Based on information obtained through internet research, cell phone ownership is exceptionally high (no surprise here). In the U.S. almost 91% of the population owns some form of cell phone. In Europe and Russia, there are 13 cell phones owned for every 10 individuals, and in Asia & Pacific almost 70% of the population owns a cell phone. IVR systems still play a very important role in customer service organizations and ease of access increases through the use of cell phones. And just to prove the point, I took advantage of calling an IVR system while traveling to the east coast over the Christmas holiday to check some personal account status from my mobile phone.

Besides the obvious reduction of relying primarily on IVR systems for customer support, here is the more important impact smart phones and tablet technologies are having on customer support services…… the necessity to have a more comprehensive and integrated CRM solution encompassing all methods of support to enhance customer experiences.

The fundamentals of IVR technology are unlikely to radically change. While improvements continue to be made to speech recognition systems, the core process is still effectively the same; dial the customer support phone number, enter appropriate account and personal identification information via touch tone or voice recognition, and receive information from the company’s data repository. What is changing with IVR systems is the following:

  • Improving the type or amount of information you can obtain over the phone due to increasingly powerful business analytics tools and improved application design in response to increased competition.
  • Increased integration of SMS and email capabilities into legacy IVR systems as well as newly deployed IVR systems.
  • The necessity to keep track of customer interactions from multiple support avenues (smart phones and web enabled CRM applications) in an integrated manner to support future customer inquiries.

None of these mentioned enhancements represent a radical or disruptive method of providing customer support from IVR systems. What they do represent is improved ROI for one of the earliest and still highly dominant methods of providing customer support services.

Currently, one of the more cost effective ways Acclaim Telecom is seeing increased ROI and improved customer satisfaction is through the integration of SMS text messaging and email based capabilities with IVR systems. Providing outbound notifications, transaction or event confirmations, transmitting requested data for future use or reference, or prompting alternative system interaction for more complex transaction requests are but a few of the ways SMS text and email capabilities are being used.

Acclaim Telecom would be happy to discuss how you can take advantage of integrated SMS text messaging or integrated email to enhance your customer support services. Just give us a call at 1-866-324-6416 or drop us a line at atsi_marketing@acclaimtelecom.com

Popular Retail Uses of IVR Technology

Over the years Acclaim Telecom has worked with many clients on hundreds of IVR applications.   Some applications are simple and unique in usage, while others have wide ranging and strategic impact on a company’s operation.

As IVR capabilities continue to migrate to cloud computing models, even more companies are taking advantage of these applications itemized below.  We thought you might be interested in learning about a few of the more commonly deployed retail industry IVR applications.

Store locators – an early usage which allows retail vendors with multiple locations to automate routine information retrieval for their customers.   Information made available typically included store locations (identified by proximity to zip codes), hours of operation, directions, and the ability to search for department or employee extensions.

Order status – by using an IVR order status application retail vendors can service their clients 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.  Typical inbound call information available include product shipment data for air, ground or mail shipments, back order status, along with outbound notices that a product has shipped or been delivered.  One innovative customer used their IVR system to send advance sales notice information with a special purchase code.  This purchase code could be used 12 hours in advance of the general public announcement.  Of course they provided the option to hear about pre-announcement sales information only after being updated on the status of their current order.

Bill reminders – another early and highly productive IVR solution.  With very little additional cost and with a potential huge reduction in live agent overhead, calls can be placed to customers reminding them before and after bills are due, along with current balances and payment history.

Employee notification and work scheduling – companies with large numbers of retail stores often have to make last minute staffing changes.  This is especially true in times of high shopping demand such as Black Friday, holiday shopping seasons, and unique store or product promotion events.  IVR systems can place outbound calls to store employees which in turn allow them to respond with availability, enable automated work scheduling, provide work audit tracking, and provide reminder notices of work schedules for employees who work irregular hours.

Customer service polls – companies wishing to capture real time shopper experience can use outbound IVR calls to capture important knowledge.  Acclaim Telecom recommends limiting the quest for information to the top 2 – 3 most important knowledge areas and allow the customer to finish the survey within 60 seconds.  And most importantly, this is not the time to market new offers to a customer.

Internal Inventory and Reporting – while clearly web enabled automation has encroached in this area, there are still times when using a mobile phone is useful to check the status of inventory, orders and sales information.  By integrating iVR capabilities into supply chain management systems, purchasing agents can place or check order status when mobile internet access is not readily available.

Call Center Automation – obviously this is the big one. By correctly analyzing repetitive customer inquiries, automating non-strategic information inquiries or simple information tasks, significant call center cost reductions can be achieved.  This in turns allows call center agents to address more complex or sophisticated customer inquiries requiring human decision making capabilities.

Custom Retail IVR Applications – if you have a unique or custom retail IVR application need, contact Acclaim Telecom.  We would be happy to see how our industry experience can help your organization achieve your desired results while improving customer responsiveness.

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