IVR gone bad

IVR is something most of us experience almost daily.  IVR is Interactive Voice Response, and it’s the technology that lets a computer listen to a phone call and respond based on buttons pressed or words spoken. It was originally conceived as a way to save resources, as a computer could sit and take many more phone calls than a live customer service representative, answer multiple calls at once, and process those calls simultaneously.  What a deal, right?

Most of us have only used IVR’s that respond to button presses.  For instance, you call the bank to check on your mortgage payment, and the IVR system walks you through things like punching in your zip code, account #, etc… and eventually gives you the info you need or directs you to a live person (if you’re lucky).

The next step in IVR’s has been to give the caller simple yes/no questions so that they can either press 1 or 2 or they can actually speak “yes” or “no”.  The idea is to make it easier for the caller, but my personal experience is that I feel wierd talking to what I know is a computer on the other end, and if I have a choice, I’ll punch the buttons rather than speak the answers.

As the IVR has evolved more, the questions have gotten more complex with more possible answers.  Of course, as the number of answers increases, the voice recognition has to be better to distinguish the words correctly even with all the speech dialects and impediments.  Again, I feel wierd talking to a computer, and have even had issues with the computer not understanding me correctly.

The latest stage of IVR, and in my mind the most hated, is the system that asks the caller what they want.  No menus, no options to pick from, just “say a few words describing why you are calling, and we’ll figure it out and pass you to the right people”.  Hah.  I don’t make phone calls unless I’ve got something complex to deal with that absolutely has to be done on the phone.  I don’t know how to boil my problems down to a few key words.

I’ve run into 3 of these latest-gen IVR systems over the last month.  System 1 was so touchy that even though I put my hand over the phone receiver, it thought I was speaking and kept fighting to figure out what I was saying.  System 2 worked, but because it was after-hours, offered absolutely no path to a live person, and worse yet, didn’t explain that, just let me wander around inside aimlessly until I finally gave up.  System 3 just baffled me because I had no idea how to tell it in a few words why I was calling.  In both cases I was able to break out of the loop by hitting 0 or # or *, which if you do enough times, will hopefully get you to either the backup menu-based system or possibly even to a live customer service rep.

So, what’s the next step in IVR?  A system that attempts to read our thoughts?

Oddly enough, one large vendor that I work with a lot has moved to offering a live support line.  They’ve heard the complaints about IVR and are giving their customers a single phone number to call which is guaranteed to be answered by a live person who will ask you some questions and redirect your call.  They’ve realized that customer service is a big part of their product, and people will pay a little more for it.

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