How far should you go to try to contain calls within the IVR? These angry Tweets show it’s a strategy that can quickly backfire.

It’s one of those things that sound perfectly sensible in business planning meetings: “The more calls we can contain in the interactive voice response (IVR), the lower our contact center costs will be.”

Containment is a classic contact center efficiency metric, and one that many organizations still use in isolation to measure contact center success.

But while a containment strategy may reduce volumes of inbound calls to the contact center (or at least seem to), does it always provide the kind of service customers want?

Spoiler alert: callers don’t always like being “contained”

In our hearts, we both know the answer to that is “no”. While many customers will be satisfied with the self-service they receive in the IVR - especially if it’s been designed around their needs - there are hundreds who won’t get the help they’re after.

That may be because they have a non-standard inquiry, or they want help with multiple things, or the IVR menu doesn’t present them with an option that maps to the task they have in mind.

When that happens, a fair few of those customers will vent their frustration on Twitter. Here’s an example of what that kind of experience looks like from a caller’s point of view:

This is a brutal example of containment, and something we see a lot - IVRs that are programmed to automatically end the call after requesting a piece of data and failing to receive it.

It’s a classic case of an IVR experience built around business objectives, rather than the customer’s needs. Basically, it’s been designed with the assumption that the customer will be able to provide a piece of data, and won’t allow them to progress further if they don’t.

It makes sense in the abstract world of business logic: if the caller can’t provide the data, the business process can’t be completed, so it should be terminated. If the caller wants to re-start the process, they can call back again with the right information.

But customers aren’t abstract, logical entities; they’re living, breathing people with their own feelings, priorities and needs. And when they need help, your business data - like the parcel consignment number - isn’t always at the front of their mind.

So how can you provide a better experience for callers that don’t have the right data to hand?

A more customer-centric approach to containment

We find that callers are more tolerant of situations like this when they feel they’re in control and being listened to. So, rather than demand a consignment number, the IVR could ask the caller if they have the number to hand, and give them an option to indicate they don’t have it. In this case, it could request some alternative ID data that the caller is more likely to have.

In our experience with one UK utility, most people who can’t provide the requested ID data have a genuine reason. They are not (yet) customers, for example, or they’re calling on behalf of a customer, or calling in response to a letter that hasn’t included their account number.

In all of those situations, the caller could reasonably expect to be able to progress a query without having to provide an account number. If the IVR simply hangs up on them, they’re left feeling powerless, frustrated and angry.

When should there be an option to speak to an agent?

Then there’s the big decision: whether - and at what point - to give callers the option to be connected to an agent if they don’t have the right data to make a self-service transaction

Understandably, lots of companies are initially reluctant to do this, as the aim is to contain as many calls as possible within the IVR. But at the same time, the IVR has to deliver a positive caller experience. If it doesn’t solve callers’ problems, containment becomes a false economy. It does nothing to make the customer need go away - instead, as well as making customers angry, it tends to drive them to try their luck in other channels.

It’s a tough balance to strike. Including a prominent “speak to an agent” option will increase the volume of inbound inquiries that could easily be solved in self-service - but hiding it away causes customer frustration and extra cost. Here, for example, is the lengthy saga of a Virgin Media customer who didn’t have the right data to be able to progress through the company’s IVR:

The first thing to notice about this is that it takes the customer three whole days - and three different customer engagement channels - to get their query resolved, for a task they probably thought was quite a simple one when they started out

If, like an increasing number of forward-thinking brands, Virgin Media were measuring the quality of its customer experience on the amount of effort the customer has to put in to get a task completed, this one would carry a huge red flag.

That said, it’s clear that Virgin Media’s IVR does employ some good design practices, like asking for an alternative form of ID (in this case, a landline number) when the caller doesn’t have the first piece of data requested.

But this example shows that there are times when - for perfectly valid reasons - the caller doesn’t have any of the data necessary to progress through the IVR and get their query resolved.

Hiding the “speak to an agent” option doesn’t solve the problem

In Virgin Media’s case, the IVR does actually have a hidden mechanism for transferring the caller to an agent, but because it isn’t made clear, the caller has no way of knowing about it.

We could speculate that Virgin Media, like most large consumer-facing brands, wants to contain as many calls as possible. So the IVR dialog design doesn’t explicitly tell callers that if they wait long enough, they’ll be transferred to an agent. Very probably, the hope is that the customer will hang up, go away and find their data, then come back and complete their request in self-service.

Callers will find another way around - and it may cost you even more

But that’s not what happens in real life. In this case, the customer still wants their query resolved, so they resort to another channel where they think there’s a better chance of talking to a human being.

They end up on Twitter, where they get a (very) helpful response from a social media agent - who, somewhat ironically, tells them about the hidden transfer option they could have taken in the IVR.

As this query was always going to end with an agent interaction, it could have been resolved much earlier by enabling the caller to speak to a contact center agent as an option in the IVR menu, or - even better - by providing a live chat option on the website where they started their journey three days earlier!

That way the customer would have had a much more positive experience, and the brand would have avoided having its dirty IVR laundry aired in public.

The bottom line: containment can easily backfire

Aiming for 100% IVR containment may seem a tempting strategy, but it’s one that can quite easily backfire. A better approach is to make some design tweaks to the IVR that allow customers to get rapid and effective help with their query, rather than driving them to other channels that are not only equally expensive, but also more damaging to brand reputation.

On the metrics side, looking at containment in isolation may tell you how many inbound calls you avoided, but it’s a poor guide to the overall effectiveness of your IVR as a customer service channel. To ensure your IVR is providing the kind of service your customers need (and isn’t just driving them to other channels to try to get their task completed), it’s best to measure containment in conjunction with customer satisfaction metrics.

That way, you can tell when your callers are truly happy with the self-service available to them in the IVR. If they are, you should see your inbound call volumes drop - and your social mentions turn from complaints to praise.

Time to give your own IVR a once-over

If you suspect your IVR containment strategy is driving customers away, it’s time to do something about it. VoxGen offers a free IVR healthcheck, to analyze how your callers experience your IVR, and provide some focused recommendations for improving the quality of the service it delivers. Book your free IVR healthcheck here.


Topics: IVR Design