Sunday, February 19, 2012

Press 1 for Cool - The Video IVR

I have worked in the contact center technology field for most of my IT career.  I've watched as the industry has moved from 30 year old ACD technology to skills-based routing, least-cost routing, business process routing, multimedia, and internet contact technologies.

I've attended trade shows and user group meetings, done consulting and worked as a full-time employee for fortune 50 companies.  It has been interesting to watch the unfolding of VoIP and SIP technologies and the decline of TDM technologies.  Contact center technology has changed rapidly since the turn of the century and, like all other tech, has had to evolve to accommodate an increasingly tech-wise population that would rather click hyperlinks than talk to a human when they need customer service.

In spite of all that progress, most organizations have struggled to really connect with their customers in a way that truly showcases the capabilities of the available technology.  The evolution of VXML and CCXML, as well as API exposure from the contact center technology providers, has opened doors that weren't even thought of 10 years ago.  We can do so much more than what we're doing right now in contact centers.

I'd have to say, the worst of the contact center experiences (other than language barriers) are poorly written IVR applications.

IVR applications are those things you talk to when you call an 800 number at your bank, or your electric company, or any other organization with which you do business, to self service your account.  Perhaps an example will show you what I mean.

You: beepbeepboopboopbeepboopbeepbeepboop (ok, this is really your phone)

IVR lady: Thank you for calling Big National Bank, where we love you.  No, really.  Please select from the following options.  For account management, press 1.  For loans, press 2.  For credit cards, press 3.  To repeat this menu, press 8 and don't ask us why we picked a non-sequential number for that option.

You: boop (you pressed 1)

IVR lady: You pressed 1, is that right?  If so, press 1 to accept.  To go back to the main menu, press 2.

You: boop

IVR lady: OK, account management.  For checking, press 1.  For savings, press 2.  For money laundering, press 3.

You: booeep (that's a 3, sounds ominous because it's the money laundering menu)

IVR lady: You pressed 3, is that right?  If so, press 1 to accept.  To go back to the previous menu, press 2.

You: boop (remember, that's a "1")

IVR lady: I'm sorry, I didn't understand your response.  Press 1 to accept, or press 2 to return to the previous menu.

You: beep (wait, was that 1 or 2?)

IVR lady: I'm still having trouble hearing you.  Press 1 to accept, or press 2 to return to the previous menu.

You: (wait, what am I accepting?  what was the previous menu?  Crap, I'm lost!  Desperate "boop" and inaudable swearing.)

IVR lady: You seem to be having trouble.  Should I give you a moment to familiarize yourself with your telephone keypad?  If yes, press 1.  If no, and to return to whatever menu we were talking about, press 2.

You: (more swearing, this time much more audible, and BOOP BOOP BOOP BOOP BOOP on the 0 key to talk to a human).

IVR lady: Oh, you want to talk to one of our expensive agents.  Fine.  Your call is very important.  We estimate your wait time to be <dramatic pause> 17 <pause> minutes.

I think you will all agree that I'm only exaggerating a little with this example. You may have chuckled a bit reading the example (come on, humor me) but you probably don't chuckle, in fact, you probably cringe, when you really have to interact with one of these things.

This hasn't really progressed much past old mainframe green screen, menu-driven software. The sad thing is, there really are IVR applications like this being used in customer service organizations everywhere today.  Even sadder, the limitations are more around creativity than the technical capabilities of the available technology.

Remember this?

And you thought Kramer was just a funny guy. He invented the first speech driven IVR, more out of necessity than anything. Figured we all needed a laugh after that annoying IVR lady.

IVR development tools have gotten much more robust over the past few years, allowing developers to give the IVR quasi-intelligence, speech recognition, and the ability to interact with a myriad of backend systems. In the hands of a skilled developer, all kinds of possibilities open up.  Companies are slowly but surely embracing the tech and spending the money to catch up to it.

Let's talk about a seemingly unrelated topic for a second.  I promise to tie this together.

Personal assistant technology is beginning to show up on Apple and Android devices everywhere.  The two big players right now are Apple's Siri, and Speaktoit for Android.  These are both really in their infancy, and I refuse to make comparisons, as that always seems to stir up fights.  They both get the job done, but "the job" is fairly limited right now.  Basically, anything you can do on your smartphone the assistant can help with; send messages, respond to messages, open apps, check weather, time of day, etc., etc.  Pretty cool tech, but still a bit limited and the bots sometimes struggle to get it right.

Now, what does this have to do with the contact center industry?

The industry is beginning to take notice of these personal technology assistants and recognizes the potential for integration.  As the technology advances and the providers of personal assistants begin to open their API's and SDK's, contact center technology developers will begin using these to integrate personal assistants with customer service organizations' backend systems and provide self-service options to their customers via smartphone apps.

Instead of dialing a toll-free number and talking to a voice deeply rooted in tedious and cumbersome menu driven self-service using your keypad, you will talk to a personal assistant avatar on your smartphone screen in much more natural speech patterns in the next generation of intelligent Customer Front Door technology.  Some initial studies have shown that visual IVR technology can reduce the amount of time required to get through a self-service conversation.  Avatar-based visual IVR's could reduce that even further.

Now, let's try that bank call again, but this time, you're talking to Hal, your personal assistant on your smartphone screen.

You: Hello, Hal.  I need to check a balance in my primary checking account and transfer some money to my offshore account.
Hal: I'd be delighted to help you with that Dave.  Can you give me your password?
You: Yes, the password is **********.
Hal: Ten asterisks is an odd password, Dave, but whatever.  Your primary checking account balance is ninety-seven dollars and thirty-four cents.  How much would you like to transfer to your offshore account?
You: Three thousand dollars.
Hal: I'm sorry, Dave, I can't do that for you right now, that exceeds your balance.  It can only be attributable to human error.
You: Thanks, Hal.  Just seeing if you were paying attention.
Hal: Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore.  Goodbye.

In spite of Hal's condescending demeanor, you walk away happy because that took much less time than that annoying IVR lady that could probably drive even Hal crazy.

Over the next few years, we will see big changes in the contact center experience.  While nobody will ever be able to come up with anything as cool as Kramer's Moviefone, visual platforms will become increasingly popular and, as the technology improves, will remove some of the pain from customer service.


  1. Hi Eric, Nice piece! what are your thoughts on a simplified visual IVR solution, before jumping to a virtual Assistant? check out

  2. I can't get that URL to work. I think visual IVR's are (hopefully) where all this will go. The old DTMF stuff is so ancient. It gives voice developers a bad name. :-)