Why You Don’t Notice Good (Voice) Automation

Holding your phone at arm’s length and yelling at the top of your lungs at the automated voice on the other end may seem like the type of thing reserved for a TV sitcom or a video about the challenges of speech recognition engines understanding a Scottish accent. Yet, the reason that these images resonate so deeply with a broad cross-section of people is because the bogey man of poor automation is one that is understood through experience.

A Bad Rap

Interactive voice response (IVR) gets a bad rap in large part because of how it was abused in the past. Focusing on the bottom line and not on providing good customer service is a typical culprit in this situation. For many companies their call center doesn’t provide the type of ROI they want to see. In some cases, the goal for a company is to active prevent calls going to their more expensive service channels.

Others may have gone into automation with good intentions, but never put the time into properly fine tune or update their application. This leads to a “set it and forget it” situation where the automated system produces long hold times, a never-ending string of messages assuring callers that their call is important, and phone menus that are so labyrinthine that not even David Bowie would be interested in using it.

Blaming the technology itself is like blaming a golf club for slicing a shot and breaking a window. In reality, the root of the issue lies in user error. After all, an IVR application is only as good as the person who designs it. That’s why putting the extra time into planning and design is key.

It Just Works

And yet… and yet… When a company has a good, well-designed IVR no one ever says, “Wow, that was a great phone system!” It’s just the nature of the beast that the things that “just work” are taken for granted. People don’t associate these applications with IVR because that’s not the lived experience that most people have.

It doesn’t have to be this way. IVR has come a long way since those not-so-halcyon days when it was used almost exclusively as a virtual receptionist. Advances in automatic speech recognition (ASR) makes hands-free navigation of phone menus easier than ever. To use an industry term, ASR may not be at a “five 9s” level of reliability yet, but good engines are at least in the 90th percentile or better when it comes to accuracy. Those times when ASR doesn’t come through though, systems with error-correction built-in still make it easy for callers to complete tasks. At the end of the day, attention to system design is a vital operator.

Therein lies the crux of the thing. The ability to quickly and easily complete tasks on the phone is the hallmark of a good IVR. A truly customer-focused company understands this, and continually optimizes and improves their self-service applications to provide great automation. Just like in Hollywood, filmmakers want their CGI effects to be so realistic that you can’t tell whether they’re real or fake, so too should enterprises make their IVR applications so seamless that a caller never even considers transferring to an agent.

Hold The Applause

Let’s be honest. Given the bad rap that IVR gets the last thing you want to build is a typical IVR. So don’t! Instead, use IVR technology to design, build, and optimize a voice application that caters to the needs of your callers. The fact that an application like this boosts ROI all while providing great customer service, is more than a fringe benefit. It’s justification for extending customer experience principles to self-service systems.

Naturally, your customers would thank you, but with a well designed automated communications app they may not even notice. After all, that’s the goal, right?

None of this is submitted without a dose or realism though. What many don’t realize is how expensive it is to have something that “just works.” There’s a reason that for every Siri or Cortana there are thousands of less sophisticated IVR applications. Apple spent $200M to acquire the technology behind Siri, and the Siri team remains one of the largest at the company. We’re not talking about pocket change here.

Then again, not every company wants or needs a voice application with a personality like Siri. A company like FedEx, which has robust ASR technology in its IVR application, spent millions developing it, and maintaining it isn’t an exercise in frugality either. There remains a need to balance the cost of developing and maintaining that technology with everything else on your plate. Exploring and understanding what it takes to get great ASR is critical if you want to include it in your automation plans.

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