Several years ago at a trade show, I was impressed with what vendors were saying about call automation, known as interactive voice response (IVR) -- impressed that is, until I found out what it would take to get a system running for myself. The labor savings for phone-based customer service with IVR are great and the service quality for users is getting better each year, but when I heard about the time and costs associated with an IVR system, I got sticker shock.
On the one hand, IVR costs about one-sixth the price of offshore labor costs, but on the other, the minimum costs of getting IVR deployed in your company is north of $250,000 and you have to wait about a year before the service comes on line.
These costs make sense for companies with large call volumes -- cable companies, airlines, mass transit, and large freight shippers -- but make no sense for the millions of small-to-midsize businesses that could benefit from call automation. If your business could save $50,000 a year with IVR on moderate call volumes, you would not even consider call automation, since the entry costs are too high to justify a return on your investment.
Plug & Play IVR on the Web
We are now entering the age when IVR is available, totally configured and deployed, via a Web site. As a result, phone-based customer support may well be entering a new era. Here's how it works: A customer first gets on one of these sites, picks one of many IVR packages that best fits her customer service needs and then in just a matter of hours -- or even minutes -- she can configure and deploy the IVR solution that can service thousands of her end users. Example packages include:
- store locator;
- order status;
- PIN reset;
- change of address;
- prescription refill;
- outage notification; and
- phone shopping.
For inbound calls, businesses get a toll-free number that can be advertized to their end users. For outbound calls, they can create call lists of any size and call schedules to meet their business needs.
A packaged IVR application takes all the best practices of voice user interface design and customer service knowledge and delivers a near-finished, specific customer service over the phone. The remaining 1 percent to 3 percent of the customization is to brand the welcome and goodbye voice messages, set some business values (such as phone numbers and prices), and then hook up the back end to a customer data source. Customers have the choice of either uploading CRM data to the Web site or configuring a Web service to access data securely from their server. All packages come with real-time call reports detailing key events in each call, such as: Did the user agree to pay for a purchase?
Try Before You Buy and Pay as You Go
Not only can customers select, configure, deploy, and test the finished IVR application for free, but when the customer is ready to deploy the solution in production, it costs 10 times less than custom IVR solutions and can be deployed in hours instead of months.
But will the packaged speech application fill the needs of every contact center? First, IVR should mostly be used for automating simple and routine service issues, not high-maintenance requests like tech support or buying a PC by phone. IVR can handle about 30 percent of all customer service requests very well. Today's contact centers can choose from dozens of packaged speech solutions for the entgerprise and in vertical markets such as travel, financial services, healthcare, retail, education, and government. By the end of this year, there will be hundreds of packaged speech applications. This type of coverage will meet the needs of 80 percent to 90 percent of businesses that can benefit from IVR.
The Tipping Point
Many case studies on big companies with huge customer service call volumes -- such as FedEx, United Airlines, Amtrak, and E*Trade -- have proved that IVR has been ready for primetime for about a decade. Now that IVR is Web-enabled, millions of small-to-midsize businesses can finally see the same operational benefits long enjoyed by large companies. At the next call automation trade show I go to, I wonder if the same custom IVR vendors I talked to before might very well complain about how Web-enabled IVR is squeezing their sales.
About the Author
Michael Kuperstein is the CEO of Wellesley, Mass.-based Metaphor Solutions (www.metaphorivr.com), a leading IVR provider with 55 packaged IVR applications, Web-based development tools and IP PBX IVR interfaces. Previously, he cofounded Captiva Software, currently the global leader in information capture solutions. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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