Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Systems: What to Look Out For

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We’ve asked four specialists – Genesys, New Voice Media, Plum Voice Portals and Sabio – for their advice on IVR systems.

While many of these points discussed below remain relevant, we have created a similar page that is much more up-to-date.

So, to view our most recent IVR article, just follow the link: What to Look for When Buying an IVR

Using IVR to enhance your business by putting the customer first

Customer service is an area that has become the new battleground for businesses, and IVR is a key player in it. IVR has been a part of the contact centre since organisations began trialling Dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) solutions over ten years ago and has shown to be successful in significantly boosting cost-effectiveness, customer retention and the bottom line.

Success lies in three key areas: first and foremost in customer centricity, where the battle begins and ends; next, in open standards, which enable easy deployment and integration with new technologies and applications; and finally in the ongoing monitoring of the system, which enables you to listen and learn from your customers.

You’re customer-facing, so design your IVR around the customer

Most callers still recall frustration with IVR systems, so contact centres have to work that little bit harder to ensure customers want to use their self-service channels. The key lies in the design of the IVR.

Speech-based systems are more flexible and diverse than DTMF, but to make them effective you have to ensure they  directly address the needs of your customers.

The trap that many businesses fell in to with DTMF – which can be highly effective – was in the design stage. Those who automated everything ended up with a service that customers became frustrated with and didn’t use.

In truth, speech systems can help create ‘natural’ interactions with the customer, overcoming what is a pretty major hurdle. They can provide a tool for effective self-service. However, you must make the system appeal to your customers.

Customer expectations are critical to the success of your IVR. If you have high value products and a strong, top-end brand, then your customers will rightly expect superior service in the contact centre and be irritated with anything less. If, on the other hand, you offer low cost products and services, then your customers’ expectations are different. Judging what customer service is worth to the customer is therefore an important first step in determining your IVR strategy.

This evaluation will help identify the processes that you should automate and those that can be realistically migrated to self-service. Just remember to create personal greetings, make standard information easily available and enable accessibility and freedom of choice throughout the navigation. You now have the beginnings of a good IVR strategy.

In addition, remember that to consolidate the information gathered by your effective IVR solution, you need to make sure that, in the event of a transfer to the agent, all information gathered in the application is saved and presented to the agent that will handle the query. This greatly improves agent productivity and further reduces customer frustration.

Follow this link for information about IVR Integration

Pursue an open standards deployment

Another thing to consider is the open standards versus proprietary technology issue. Open standards give you much  greater flexibility for deployment now and in the future, greater integration capabilities as new applications and technologies develop, and greater cost-efficiency.

Many businesses are currently locked in to legacy IVR systems that are proprietary, inflexible and expensive to maintain, and this inevitably has a direct impact on customer service and cost-efficiency.

Open standards provide opportunities for pre-packaged applications that significantly reduce the total cost of ownership of applications. This will give you a greater opportunity to realise a higher ROI – while you also retain control of application development, maintenance and operations.

Voice XML (Extensible Mark-up Language) provides the foundations for voice applications in the IVR system. It is the critical link between voice applications and underlying component technologies such as telephony hardware and speech technologies – and enables you to build custom applications or license pre-packaged applications to develop and integrate them in to your platform.

XML-based standards will enable you to integrate multiple – that is, legacy, backend, customer relationship management (CRM) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) – systems in to the IVR, which helps tailor it towards your customer. To achieve a fully comprehensive self-service solution, you will need to integrate with data silos and other applications within your business, too. Open standards will enable you to do this.

Voice XML also allows for application portability. When you are scheduling your next IVR replacement, existing VXML applications can be run on the new VXML-compliant system.

Measure the benefits and review the system’s success

So you have decided what you can, and also what you should, automate to make the IVR customer-centric, and you’ve deployed an open standards solution. You have set up the ideal base, but the real benefits come when this approach is  ongoing – monitored and reviewed. In other words, listen and learn from your customers.

Your list of expected benefits from the IVR solution requires specific metrics that analyse its performance against the targets. This will enable you to measure the benefits and the ROI of the new solution, and more importantly, compile an exception report if there are areas where you need to improve.

Ongoing testing and reviews of the system will ensure that you continue to reach these targets, and also allow you to adapt if they change. Both your customer needs – in fact, customers themselves – and your business proposition are likely to change over a period of time, and you may need to redevelop some areas of the service to keep up-to-date with those. If you want to do this, you must have the information to tell you when, where and how. The key, therefore, is to measure and
review at all stages.

Thanks to Stefan Captijn, product marketing manager, EMEA at Genesys (

Choosing an IVR for all seasons

IVR is often the first interaction between a customer and an organisation when calling in to a call centre. It can strongly influence the caller’s perception of a company through its personality and ease of use, delivering great benefits to both sides. Conversely, getting it wrong through poor implementation can be a real turn off for the caller, so getting it right is important.A good IVR should help a customer meet their needs by getting them to where they want to go. At the same time it should help your agents by removing some of the repetitive elements of their work. It can be as simple as an audio information tree, where tone menus provide access to pre-recorded announcements, or as complex as a personalised caller treatment system with speech recognition menus that learn a caller’s favourite choices and next time they call, offer these choices in the first menu. But what are the main issues you should bear in mind when buying an IVR? Here is my personal list of considerations:

1) How will you use yours?

Companies use IVR for a range of reasons, such as filtering callers to the right staff via skills-based routing menus; data collection, in the form of customer satisfaction questionnaires; order processing; and automation of repetitive agent tasks during ordinary business. On calls where the human touch is always preferred they can be used when agents are not immediately available, such as when more than a certain number of calls are queuing, or – more commonly – as a choice to callers currently waiting in a queue.

They can also be useful to provide service out-of-hours, but are particularly powerful in helping with a call centre’s overall disaster recovery strategy. In times of stress or high call volumes the IVR can really come in to its own, with pre-programmed alternative call plans activated so that selected calls can be fully automated or routed toalternative call centres. Some network-based IVR systems calls can even provide an emergency automatic call distributor (ACD) that routes direct to your own staff, allowing them to telework from home during major disasters such as severe weather conditions or the often predicted avian flu epidemic.

2) How often would you like to change it?

One key issue to consider is how easily you will be able to change the call flow and the wording of its announcements. Call centres are constantly evolving and are rarely static, with issues coming up daily that might benefit from a minor change to the IVR. It could be a supplier problem such as your bank accidentally running its direct debit programme twice in one night, and billing all of your customers twice. A quick up-front announcement on calls to the billing agents explaining the situation would help enormously.

More frequently, however, the issue is of a local nature, such as trainees being brought in to assist with temporary staff shortages or unexpected call volumes. Having an ability to add a menu option which can filter out calls to be handled by these trainees for a few days can be a real advantage. Make sure that your IVR call plans can be changed simply and quickly to meet your needs – ideally from a remote web browser so that you can react quickly if required.

3) Think about speech technology

Complex customer interactions such as postcode recognition and name and address capture can sometimes only be  achieved through the use of speech recognition technology, but you have to be careful with speech recognition to ensure that callers whose words are not recognised are well-treated. Make sure your IVR has the ability to drop failed recognition callers in to a call centre without losing the data already entered.

For all IVRs, but in particular speech recognition implementations, I would recommend that you trial the system with a small percentage of your inbound calls before implementing it across the whole call centre. This allows you to monitor customer acceptance and, most importantly, check that it covers all required outcomes such as call flows. It’s hard to envision an IVR call flow design on paper, so phone the system and try a few options to hear how they sound and see where changes or improvements are appropriate. Choose a system where changes can be implemented separately over a period of time. This will help you avoid the pitfalls of ‘big bang’ changeovers.

4) How should it sound?

Finally, the most important thing to consider is how your IVR should sound to the caller. Consider using professionally recorded messages because they make a great deal of difference to the way your customers perceive you and can be tied in to strengthening the brand.

To summarise, here is a checklist of ten key considerations:

  • What company image should your IVR project?
  • The functionality required over the life of the system
  • Ease of use on day-to-day changes
  • Capacity required during normal and exceptional conditions
  • Use of the system during disasters
  • Real-time and historical management and information systems (MIS) capabilities
  • Upgrades of capacity or features
  • System reliability
  • Technical support
  • Buying a solution or renting

By Richard Pickering, director of network applications at NewVoiceMedia (

Meeting the changing needs of call centres

From a customer perspective, the IVR (interactive voice response) system can be the introductory ‘voice’ of the call centre, setting the tone for how an enterprise views customer interaction. An IVR system has the potential to delight customers and boost their confidence in the company or, sadly, to frustrate and alienate them. Similar to a company’s website, the IVR is often a key point of initial customer interaction.From an operational perspective, IVR streamlines call centre operations by automating routine transactions, providing answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) and intelligently routing calls.

Research has confirmed that the return on investment (ROI) is significant. The cost of employing live agents to answer routine requests can average over $5 per call. Meanwhile, the incremental cost of handling calls with a VoiceXML telephony portal is measured in pennies.While IVR is not new to call centres, the technology behind IVR systems has dramatically changed in recent years. The outmoded IVR of yesteryear has been replaced with technologies that have brought more versatile IVR solutions that are faster to deploy and superior in quality and functionality. Whether you are looking to replace a legacy IVR system or are in the market to create a whole new solution, there are a number of things to keep in mind when purchasing a call centre IVR solution…

1) End-to-end service

An IVR solution involves a number of elements including the platform, the application, data integration, equipment  integration and maintenance and monitoring. Look for a full service ‘one-stop’ IVR shop that offers the technology expertise and complete professional services that can take you from IVR design to full implementation and management.

2) Support for VoiceXML

VoiceXML is based on the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Extensible Markup Language (XML) and is the standard for voice response systems. It is being used by thousands of developers in enterprises all over the globe.

VoiceXML integrates easily with a regular application service infrastructure and allows you to leverage your existing investments, such as your web application server, to run your VoiceXML applications. Find a provider that supports the VoiceXML 2.1 IVR standard, as this will speed application development and enable easy application modification down the road.

3) Full systems that deliver functional custom applications

Look for a provider who can create custom solutions with rich functionality. Some of the most common IVR applications for call centres include: queries and transactions that provide up-to-date information about account balances, order status and so on; customer service support that answers FAQs; collections automation that initiates outbound calls to deliver bill reminders and automate bill payment; and survey and studies applications that deliver automated surveys (on customer satisfaction, for example).

4) Ability to seamlessly migrate between multiple deployment options (hosted, on-site, or on-site/remotely managed)

A consistent VoiceXML IVR platform that can be deployed both as an on-site system or as a fully hosted solution is key to optimising the flexibility, scalability and manageability of your IVR. Having the freedom to seamlessly migrate IVR applications between hosted and on-site platforms allows call centres more options for deployment depending on future needs, resources and technology infrastructure.

5) Features that ensure superior performance

Slow performance caused by audio delay can frustrate and confuse callers. Look for an IVR solution that strives to  minimise audio latency with features like intelligent caching of audio files and audio streaming rather than audio playback. Otherwise, sluggish call performance, caused by calls being placed on voice over IP (VoIP) circuits, for example, can significantly diminish the effectiveness of call centre IVR and cause users to opt out and seek live agent assistance.

6) SLAs that deliver fail-safe reliability and superior call quality

Consumers expect greater reliability from phone systems than from websites. So IVR solutions cannot go down. Onsite systems require redundancy and careful management. Hosting providers – especially those with full control over all aspects of the solution – should be able to guarantee 24x7x365 uptime.

And just as important as uptime is call quality. Many telecom providers are offering low cost, but low quality, VoIP circuits, which often diminish call quality. IVR produces high ROI when done well, but is a customer service disaster when done poorly. Look for a vendor that uses top quality telecom circuits and IVR systems that offer low latency and excellent call quality.

7) Call recording capabilities to facilitate call monitoring, analysis and auditing

Call centre IVR systems are often involved in processing valuable information, such as product orders, personal data and financial records. Such transmission of data calls for a greater level of accountability in IVR systems. And with growing legal obligations oncall centres, such as third party verification regulations, IVR transactions are being more closely scrutinised for their accuracy.

Call recording offers an effective way to track IVR exchanges. By recording and then archiving IVR dialogues, call centres can document all their automated phone transactions and retrieve the data by any parameter, including caller name, telephone number, geographic location, call transfer destination or transaction type. Calls can then be analysed for data accuracy, call performance and service quality.

By Matt Ervin, managing director at Plum Voice Portals

How addressing the key infrastructure issues can bring IVR success

At Sabio we strongly believe that the potential benefits of correctly designed and implemented IVR solutions still far outweigh any pitfalls.

However, before organisations start to consider the wide breadth of functionality available – in terms of voice interfaces, multiple language support, natural language speech recognition, text-to-speech and Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) interfaces – there’s a lot of important infrastructure issues that they need to consider.

Importance of open standards

Perhaps the key recent shift in IVR technology has been the evolution away from proprietary touchtone IVR to emerging open standard IVR platforms such as Voice XML. Acknowledged benefits of such an open standards approach include the ability to better take advantage of a web infrastructure, the potential for improved functionality, and a more seamless transfer to speech technology to help improve routing, self-service capabilities and other transactions.

Datamonitor expects that, across Europe and North America, the market for proprietary IVR systems will decrease by some 35%, while at the same time revenues for open standard Voice XML solutions will double, with the overall IVR market growing by almost 11%. So why are open standards so important?

Perhaps the biggest benefit is flexibility, as an IVR application written in Voice XML can be ported to pretty much any compliant platform, and when required can scale to whatever size is needed. If you’re a utility company that’s just trialled an application and now wants to roll it out across the customer base, or if you’ve just made a number of acquisitions and you need to integrate a significant volume of new customers, then this scalability can prove invaluable.

The potential of open standards can also give you more flexibility with your existing IVR suppliers. It’s unlikely that you’d want to get rid of all your earlier proprietary IVR applications immediately, and the goal should be to migrate them over time to an open platform. Voice XML’s flexibility can give you the technical and commercial leverage to broker more competitive pricing with your current suppliers.

Greater infrastructure choice

In the same way that Voice XML offers greater flexibility, the growth of IP networks and specific Internet protocols such as Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and H.323 have opened up new connectivity options for organisations. Traditional IVR ‘boxes’ were connected to the phone network as normal time-division multiplexing (TDM) circuits, creating an inflexible infrastructure that was often expensive to support. The latest open IVR systems can now be connected to an IP network via SIP or H.323 protocols, providing much more flexibility and scalability for the IVR system .

For companies with multiple IVR platforms, this can have a significant impact on implementation. Instead of having IVR platforms at many different locations, organisations can now create centralised IVR server farms, taking advantage of the cost benefits of more powerful servers that now offer more efficient power consumption, resilience and scalability.

Another key consideration here is the cost per IVR port. By virtualising IVR resources on the network, companies can work with IVR suppliers that offer more flexible licensing based on only those IVR ports actually in use at any given time, rather than the total number of ports across the network.

Enabling user-centred IVR applications

Once you’ve decided which IVR platform to go for and how to connect it to your network, you need to consider the actual IVR applications you want to deploy.

While many IVR systems come with their own development tools, there are significant benefits to be gained by using one of the new generation of third party voice application management systems.
Rather than simply building functional applications, you can use third party tools to support the delivery of user-centred, high performance speech applications.

At Sabio we’ve found that working with development tools such as VoiceObjects helps us to create, test, deploy and analyse complex voice application services through a single, tightly integrated development environment. One of the main problems with earlier IVR systems was that they typically required specialist IT support to add new applications or change existing ones – driving up costs and leading to inevitable delays in the rollout of new systems. With the latest third  party tools, however, it’s far easier to use and more cost-effective to buildvoice applications.

Leveraging existing IVR investments

Other key considerations when procuring IVR systems include the number of interfaces that your system can support from a CTI middleware perspective. With Voice XML, integration issues become much simpler, but there may also be a requirement to support other Web Services, .NET and open database connectivity (ODBC) applications. Organisations
should also look at how service oriented architecture (SOA) techniques can be used to leverage your earlier IVR  applications within a broader Web Services environment.

It’s also important to think about how IVR systems are going to be integrated in to your overall customer service infrastructure. In the past, IVR boxes have often been left to run in the corner of the ITroom without any great thought about what was actually going on inside the box. Given that self-service now accounts for a growing proportion of most organisations’ customer interactions, the details of every single IVR customer interaction need to be logged and reported on using the same management reporting as other contact centre interactions. So, whatever you do, don’t forget about reporting.

By Adam Faulkner, founding Director at Sabio (

Author: Jonty Pearce

Published On: 27th Sep 2006 - Last modified: 7th Apr 2021
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