Zero option

Contact centres are springing up around the region to provide customers with a better service. However, for such centres to deliver improved service levels, they must leverage interactive voice response (IVR) strategies to enable solutions that meet both today’s demands and future requirements.

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By  Alicia Buller Published  September 25, 2004

|~|karan200.jpg|~|Karan Kapur, vice president of the retail banking group at Mashreqbank|~|Press ‘one’ for English. Press ‘two’ for Arabic. And press ‘three’ if you’re frustrated by automated response services. Sound familiar? According to an ITP.net poll, 89% of automated response users would press three given the chance. IVR may be big business, but for nearly half of its users it is just a headache. Even allowing for the odd mistake with new IVR implementations, an 89% customer dissatisfaction rate cannot be shrugged off. Customers are the lifeblood of any company, especially in today’s competitive environment, so frustrating them and possibly losing them, is a disastrous move — particularly when IVR solutions are largely sold on the premise that they increase customer satisfaction. “IVR systems are notorious. There seems to be some kind of dissatisfaction with them. It [IVR] has a bad name, people think it is impersonal,” says Srikant Gullapali, manager of Samsung’s Gulf customer satisfaction headquarters (GCSHQ). “The goal of IVR is to increase customer satisfaction, but what’s missing is that the people who implement it don’t care about the customer experience.” Developed more than two decades ago, IVR technology began innocuously enough by supporting simple applications like time of day reports and cheque verification systems for bank tellers. But recently, as sophisticated IVR systems have been implemented at customer contact points across industries such as finance, entertainment and telecommunications, it’s become the technology that we all love to hate. In addition, 44% of respondents to the ITP.net spot poll said they were frustrated with IVR centres ‘all the time’, a further 45% said they were ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ frustrated. In light of these statistics, there is varying opinion across the Middle East region as to how the reputation of IVR got into such a mess. However, many agree that dissatisfactory customer IVR experiences are often a result of a bad workman blaming his tools — hence it is the implementation that creates customer dissatisfaction and not the technology. “There are a lot more bad IVR implementations than good [IVR implementations]. In a lot of cases, particularly in the Middle East, there is a tendency to rush the service to market because of the potential cost savings. But first to market doesn’t always equate to best to market,” says Eugene O’Reilly, account manager at Periphonics, a Nortel Networks company. “People often underestimate the importance of taking time with the initial design phase. What we witness in the Middle East is that certain companies will actually start designing the service form day one, with no specifications, dialogue or customer interaction,” he adds. While an IVR transaction is reported to cost only one tenth of a face-to-face transaction, there is a difference between a solution that’s cheap and a solution that’s cost-effective. If an IVR implementation is hurried, with no consideration for customers or future product changes, then the investment will be a lost cause. For example, a bad IVR experience can not only cause a business to lose one customer, but also his or her company’s account, their families, friends and colleagues — and anyone else who cares to listen. “Human interaction must always be considered, it’s often underestimated — as is bad dialogue design. When you design a menu, you need to spend time thinking what the person on the end of the phone is going to think. For example, in the early days, they used to call voicemail ‘voice jail’ — that’s because you could get in but you couldn’t get out,” says O’Reilly. “Attention has to be paid to the initial menu design, because if you get something wrong or miss something out at the early stages, it’s only going to become magnified later… so you can’t put a deadline on the user-testing stage,” he adds. In addition to carefully planning and testing IVR menu set-ups on potential users, it’s also imperative that businesses ensure their IVR technology is integrated fully with any supporting applications — including call routers, customer relationship management (CRM) and computer telephony integration (CTI). For example, if a customer has called up in the morning with a request, then when he/she calls again in the afternoon, the call centre worker should be able to see the day’s events on his/her CRM screen, which is integrated with the IVR and CTI. There’s nothing more frustrating for a user than being bounced from operator to operator because no one is able to centrally record their request. “The agent needs to make sure that he/she has the information about the customer history on their screen and can see the choices they have made, along with the customer’s identification details,” says Ronald Rubens, EMEA managing director for converged systems & applications at Avaya. “A lot of customers have bad experiences because the stand alone technology was not well integrated, and the company did not have the ability to identify them. So they had to repeat all their choices again,” he explains. Avaya claims to have the highest take-up of IVR customers in the Middle East. The vendor attributes this success to its ability to provide customers with an option of either going through the automated system or speaking to an operator. “We always give them a choice of speaking to a live agent. For those customers who do not want to use the technology, we simply route them to an operator,” says Rubens. Another way to facilitate integration with other systems is to treat IVR as a holistic issue that is managed by representatives from the following departments: business, IT, marketing and, in some cases, voice. This helps ensure the technology isn’t just implemented as an ‘add-on’, but as an integrated part of the business that boosts customer satisfaction. Dubai Transport Corporation’s IVR system is a good example of how integration between all of its different teams has enabled a seamless telephone taxi-ordering service across its 2700-strong fleet. The system is straightforward — once the user has registered his/her address, all they need to do is to press the keypad once for their language choice, and once again to order the taxi. ||**|||~|Riadh-Boukhris_Altitude-Sof.jpg|~|Riadh Boukhris, vice president for the Middle East, Africa & South Asia at Altitude Software.|~|“It was a business and IT decision to try to provide the best service we can,” says Marwan Othman, head of hardware at Dubai Transport. “There is a system running that has all the numbers stored. So once we get the number, we know the address. Then the message automatically gets sent out to the nearest taxi via its satellite-controlled Global Positioning System (GPS). This enables the control room to pinpoint every taxi’s location and speed. Everything is integrated in the system,” he adds. Dubai Transport is an example of how IVR works best when it is simple, and also of how it’s usually best when applied to the appropriate transactions. Ordering a taxi by IVR offers a very different experience to trying to complain to a bank via IVR. However, a bank does have routine tasks that work well with IVR, such as balance checking, but it also has more complex transactions that may not be so well suited. The way to find out what works, and what doesn’t, is to test and then test some more. Andrew Lamb has been a customer of Mashreqbank for three years. While he finds the bank’s overall service ‘acceptable’, he hasn’t used the IVR system much because he’s not sure it can fulfill the more complex transactions. “Any transaction that is not ‘routine’, or in any way complicated, will not be addressed properly by IVR — human interaction will be required. Research needs to be carried out on the variation and number of transactions types and analysed against the human interaction requirements. The results would determine where to improve,” he suggests. Lamb mainly uses Mashreqbank’s web channel for quick and full access to all accounts, and face-to-face interaction for any depth queries. And judging by the ITP.net poll, this seems to reflect the general reputation of IVR — people are wary of phone service systems. However, Karan Kapur, vice president of the retail banking group at Mashreqbank, remains upbeat about the continuing effectiveness of his organisation’s integrated IVR, CTI and CRM system. Kapur is also a big advocate of testing the system — built by Ascent, Genesys and Mindscape — on customers. He says gaining their feedback is vital. “Customers can find IVR annoying when it’s not implemented properly. They find the lack of speed tedious if it’s not designed properly. The key to avoiding problems with IVR is to use focus groups and take on board their input. You have to tailor your content according to the customers’ needs,” he says. Kapur is also a great believer in choices. Mashreqbank offers two types of IVR service — a premier option and a standard one. With the former, for a few dirhams a month, a customer can automatically be forwarded to the front of the IVR ‘queue’ and also has the option to ‘zero out’ and speak to an operator at any point. In addition, premier customers have access to a live coaching service, which will guide them through the IVR menu prior to their first time of using it. With the standard service, customers also have the option to speak to an operator, but the choice is only offered at the end of the menu. “Having the zero option coming last on the menu is a trade off between saving costs and customer satisfaction. Having the option for a live operator to come first would cost a lot more. And, at the end of day, any saved costs eventually make their way back to the customer,” says Kapur. “It’s all about meeting the customer’s expectations. What do they want from you? That’s what we ask them. We do surveys and get them to rate our channels and their experience. We also record the calls and use this as a learning tool… this is why it’s so important to have a scalable system, so you can easily update and fine-tune it,” he says. Testing is key to a successful IVR system. Companies must ensure that each option is thoroughly user-tested and user-friendly. This kind of research means that an organisation’s brand image will also be protected against the unexpected. “Often companies don’t consider issues like what happens if the customer presses the wrong key sequence. What should the service do then? This can only be tested through focus groups. It’s easy to design a service when everything is going well, but what about when the unexpected happens?” says O’Reilly. He also adds that companies should modify their IVR set-up about three months after the launch, which means installing an open and scalable system. User data can be gathered in the initial stages in a number of ways: by measuring the number of callers that hang up at a certain part of the menu, or seeing how many calls are referred to an agent and why. “Sometimes you have to hang up and call back because there is no option to go back. This the reality of what customers face today,” says Othman. Lengthy menus are also major cause of customer dissatisfaction. “The choices should be not more than four or five. And it should not go deeper than three. If there’s too many, people hang up. This is based on research,” says Rubens. “Also it’s important to give them the choice to speak to a live agent or they can get frustrated,” he advises. In addition, it’s important that if the IVR or call agent is not capable of dealing with a particular transaction then there is another means in place for the customer to get help. “When I call the bank it’s not the bank people that answer the phone — it’s often people who are trained on what’s on the system and that’s it. If it’s not on there then they don’t know how to answer it,” Othman says. “So you can’t get anything, and they end up telling you to go to the bank. So what’s the point of having the system in the first place? There should always be an option to speak to someone in-depth,” he adds. All the evidence points to the fact that as a tool for routine transactions, IVR can work well. The technology can often take precedence over web channels in terms of its easy access and relative privacy. “IVR is great for people when they’re not connected to the web and if they are out and about or driving. Sometimes, too, IVR provides a more private means of accessing your account than having someone peering over your shoulder at the balance on the screen,” says Riadh Boukhris, vice president for the Middle East, Africa & South Asia at Altitude Software. But if, institutions are looking to install IVR for more complex transactions, the user experience must be tested extensively. When implemented with care, IVR systems are able to conveniently enhance the user experience while helping companies to save on labour costs. ||**||

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