Thursday, December 2, 2010

by Natalia Klishina
There has been a lot of talk lately about trying to balance the cost-effectiveness of an automated IVR system with the responsiveness of a live call center. Customer dissatisfaction has been growing at alarming rates in the last few years, with the American Management Association finding that 68% of clients cease doing business with a company because of bad service. And 20% of the population has stopped using a particular credit card because of the waits involved in its customer service phone lines. This numbers spikes to 26% for high-income customers that know they are of high value and can go elsewhere. And if people complain about credit card hotlines, they have probably never experienced the bloated monstrosities that are government organization IVRs. The DMV, the state department, the immigration and naturalization agencies -- they all make you want to kill something. We've all had experiences with automated answering systems that have been burnt into our memory like some terrible nightmare. However, IVR systems don't have to be like that. For some reason, we seem not to realize that live customer service can often be just as terrible as any machine. We've somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that human beings simply must provide a much better customer service experience. Sometimes this is true, but it also comes at a much higher cost -- both to the company, and often to the consumer, as well. Let’s look at a company that’s probably more known for its excellent customer service than an actual product: Zappos. Zappos hires thousands of real live human beings to answer their phones. They have no scripts, they have no time limits, they’ll even pretend to be your friend (and that’s something we’re all very used to and comfortable with here in LA). And Zappos does something very unique when hiring its agents. After a few weeks of immersive training, they all get offered $1,000 (on top of compensation for the amount of time they’ve worked) to QUIT. This number originally started out as $100, went up to $500, and is scheduled to eventually surpass $1,000. Here is where many of you are probably scratching your heads, but anyone with hiring or management experience might think, “That’s brilliant!” Why? Because it weeds out people for whom $1,000 is worth more than their commitment to the company, helping maintain an energetic, customer-service-oriented culture. (For those of you wondering, about 10% of new agents end up taking up Zappos on their offer.) Unfortunately, we can’t all do this; it simply wouldn’t be cost-efficient for most companies. According to a psychologist at International Business Machines Corp., the average cost per contact between an agent and customer is between $3 and $9 (compared to 5-7 cents with an automated system), which adds up VERY fast. For a company like Zappos, whose whole reputation stands on the quality of its customer service, the benefits outweigh the costs, but that doesn’t extend to everyone else. For example, back in 2007 Wal-Mart tried to completely remove its customer service number from its website. After a sizable backlash, they settled for burying the number in a hard-to-find spot – à la Amazon’s strategy. This is actually a very popular approach amongst retailers these days. For them, the financial benefits of providing live customer service on a sufficient scale simply wouldn’t cover the costs. This is the point where a large proportion of the exasperated public starts shouting that companies should care more about their customers than about making money, and so on and so forth, perhaps with some choice expletives included. Let’s get real here, though. People don’t shop at Wal-Mart for its customer service; they shop there because it’s cheap. And one of the ways in which they can afford to be cheap is by cutting down on customer service costs. Unfortunately, this is the real world, and there are necessary trade-offs in it. Companies would simply go bankrupt if they didn’t care about costs – and then where would you get your $38 Wal-Mart Pre-Lit 6.5’ White Artificial Christmas Tree this holiday season? So yes, automated IVR systems are necessary, but they are not a necessary evil. What people don’t seem to realize, is that these systems don’t have to lead to bad customer service. Columnist for TMCnet Tracey Schelmetic writes that one of the best customer service experiences she’s ever had involved calling an American Airlines toll-free lost luggage recovery line and dealing with a speech-recognition-enabled IVR. The system helped her locate her luggage when the live human beings working at American Airlines had lost it. The lesson here is that IVR doesn’t have to be unpleasant to deal with – IF designed right. This, of course, raises the obvious question: What tools might you use to design an IVR? (Like CallFire's very own IVR Designer. And of course, How do you design it right?

  1. First, know what the ultimate purpose of most IVR systems is: Provide answers to frequent questions (like location and hours of operation) and solutions to simple problems (like finding out account balances or the status of deliveries), and direct callers to the appropriate agent for anything really complex or fraught with emotion, i.e. conversations involving fraud, accidents, injuries, etc.
  2. Don’t offer too many options, so that customers become annoyed. For most people, four is pretty much the limit before their memory gives out and they no longer know what option 1 was. If you find yourself using up all the digits, and then even creating subsets, your customers will probably either be silently crying in a corner, frothing at the mouth and screaming expletives, or kicking their puppy and/or kitten. In any case, they’ll probably swear to never resort to dealing with you again. Another suggestion here would be to let the customer know right away, “please listen to the following #__ options.” That way they can mentally prepare themselves. (This is something Asurion does that's been well-received.)
  3. Offer self-service capabilities online as much as possible. Have a visible and helpful FAQ section, simplify every process, make things idiot-proof, etc. The best customer service is sometimes eliminating a need for one.
  4. Learn to plan for high-volume call spikes. If your IVR always says, “we are experiencing an unusually high level of calls,” then it is no longer unusual, is it? Hire more agents or look into contracted services that will take messages for your during these spikes.
  5. Get outside (and inside) opinions on FAQs.  Talk to your agents and see what simple questions they’re always answering and would like to see automated. Talk to your customers and find out what they think. Get as much feedback as possible, analyze it, and use it to improve your system.
  6. Use humor and a relaxed tone (if appropriate to your company). For example, Geek Squad used to have an IVR system that, after listing all the regular options, said, “press five to hear a PC that has stopped working being fired from a cannon into a lake full of hungry piranha fish.” When you pressed five, you would actually hear the simulated noises. It’s reminiscent of the Office Space scene where the evil printer finally meets its demise at the hands of Peter, Michael, Samir, and a baseball bat – and it’s also funny. It helps with some of that frustration that customers calling into Geek Squad are undoubtedly experiencing when their electronic equipment ceases to function right.
  7. Along the lines of the above point, personalize your IVR system. Almost all businesses use some sort of IVR system, and yet almost none of them record creative messages that reflect the company culture or say something unusual and memorable. For businesses where a large proportion of customer contact is through a contact center, this is a crucial opportunity to affect brand perception. If humor is appropriate for your company, use it. If not, think of something else. For example, Novotel – a hotel all about the right kind of ambiance – would say, “Life is stressful enough. While you are waiting for an agent, take these few seconds to breathe deep, refocus, relax, refresh.” Corny? Maybe. Better than a generic message? Definitely.
  8. Use great voice talent.  This may or may not come as news to you, but who voices your IVR really matters. When insurer Aflac replaced a "cold and inconsistent" voice with a middle-aged female voice that sounded much warmer and more conversational, it saw a rise in phone calls, but a drop in callers wanting to speak to a live agent. It also found in a survey that customer satisfaction amongst callers rose by 7%. Similarly, Asurion hired a female actress, coached her to inflect her speech the way that an experienced live agent would, and recorded her voice, resulting in a 5% increase in customer satisfaction and a reduced call time due to customers using the automated system before asking to be transferred.
  9. Tailor IVR shortcuts for power users.  If you have high-priority customers who are important to the company for whatever reason, consider providing them with another phone number or transfer code. This may or may not align with your company values, but it is efficient.
  10. And finally, ALWAYS provide the option to speak to a representative, or clearly state between which hours one will be available. A good idea would probably be to make pressing zero that option, as that’s the number most people associate with reaching a representative. Remember, making it too hard to reach live help is the #1 mistake companies make in introducing self-service.

So keep all these in mind and start building a more cost-effective, responsive IVR system today with CallFire's Hosted IVR. For additional information, check out these resources: