Making Self-Service Work

Interactive voice response (IVR) systems have a reputation for reducing customer service costs, but they're also (sometimes jokingly) criticized among consumers for their maddening inability to provide any service at all. With the evolution of speech-recognition technologies and Voice Extensible Markup Language (VoiceXML) applications, new voice portals have set the stage for improved processes and a better customer experience, but companies still struggle to make IVR self-service truly satisfying. If you are considering deploying an IVR system or would simply like your current one to work better, press or say "1" for help and follow these tips. Start Simple The number one rule for any IVR development is to start simple. Simple tasks include such operations as checking basic account information or updating an address. These tasks should also be some of the highest-volume customer transactions, so this approach provides companies the best return on investment. Simple tasks will also be the easiest to measure and analyze to assess the system's effectiveness and customer satisfaction. Once these simple scripts are working flawlessly, you can then move to more in-depth self-service scripts. But simple, natural, and efficient is still the name of the game. For example, no matter how well your IVR system is working, never build scripts that go deeper than three levels. Any deeper and your customers may never find their way back to your business. This is not any different from how you develop your Web sites. Simplicity and speed go a long way for providing a satisfying customer experience. Tuning Time
Do not ever underestimate the challenges of implementing a speech-recognition application. Beyond local dialects, foreign accents greatly influence the sound of English spoken by even highly proficient speakers. Organizations must plan for this challenge. Speech recognition requires ongoing optimization and must be monitored constantly. Don't forget the budget for such speech tuning. Architecture Matters Businesses need to also carefully consider the network architecture. The size of the network, the distribution of call centers, and the locations of customers are key factors in network design. It behooves you to carefully consider whether a distributed or centralized architecture will best serve your needs. Internet protocol (IP)-based networks are ideal for IVR implementations because they support either architecture equally well and provide mechanisms for managing voice quality. They also offer other critical integration capabilities, which leads to the next tip. IVR Doesn't Stand Alone An IVR system should be just one part in an organization's customer service repertoire. Retail stores, postal mail, email, and Web-based instant messaging are just a few of the growing varieties of communications options for customers. For the most effective customer service, you need to coordinate all of these methods. The key is to retain or transfer the information from one customer interaction to the others. A customer representative who answers an email should know that the customer has already called the IVR system for similar information and may now be frustrated. When it comes to communications integration, IP networks are peerless. IP, as the common language for all forms of digital communications, can most easily integrate such information into information systems and applications. Investigate Interoperation This is a key stage of due diligence. Check the documentation materials (bill of materials) and ask the integrator how the system components will work together. Reputable firms will stand behind their work and, because of this, will be conservative in setting expectations. Ask the integrator to guarantee that the various parts of your IVR system will smoothly interoperate, and make sure the vendor is held responsible for making good on any claims. Pick a Partner Though IVR technology has become far less costly and easier to deploy, it is still to be handled carefully. As previously mentioned, script design, speech recognition, and network implementation are just a few of the crucial required tasks. IVR deployments benefit in particular from what we call a life cycle, or holistic, approach. Such an approach includes careful planning, skilled implementation, and methodical follow-up as the system grows and evolves. Look for a partner with strong IVR-application experience and you'll increase your chances of success. As many companies have demonstrated over the past decade, IVR systems are extremely powerful tools that can provide significant business benefits. Used incorrectly, however, the tools can quickly become a recipe for customer dissatisfaction. Taking the right approach for a successful self-service strategy is just a matter of knowing which questions to ask and keeping the customer in mind. About the Author Laurent Philonenko is vice president and general manager of Cisco Systems' customer contact business unit. Please visit
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