What is IVR?

IVR or Interactive Voice Response is a system that reads out a menu or list of options during a phone call, and depending on the input (keypress made by the caller) received, redirects the call to the next level of menu options or to the right person.

IVR has been a part of most big business phone systems since the 80s. However, it was only after the dawn of the millennium (post-2000 A.D) when the technology associated with building an IVR system became affordable to some extent. Since then, it has definitely become an indispensable part of the inbound call process for almost all organizations in the world. Despite this, do callers really like navigating via an IVR when they call your helpline? What is it that makes people dislike your IVR experience? Is it possible that people don’t like it because it’s an old feature? To understand all this, we start with one simple question.

Why did businesses start using IVR?

Back in the 80s, phone calls were the primary mode of communication between businesses and their customers. The easiest way to inquire, purchase, or complain was through phone conversations. These phone calls were attended to by a team of receptionists who would greet the callers, understand their issue, and direct them to the right team.

Now, most businesses identified this routing as an inefficient means to handle calls. This was because they needed a team of generalists to receive calls before directing them to specialists. This was a problem because of the sooner the caller connected with the specialist, the quicker the resolution. IVR systems helped the caller to direct themselves to the right team depending on their inquiry/problem. Theoretically, it was a win-win situation as businesses could invest more time in hiring specialists while callers (who knew more about their problems than receptionists ever could) could choose the team they wanted to talk with themselves.

What is a typical IVR experience?

IVR systems typically allow businesses to set up a welcome/greeting message followed by a menu of options available to the callers. The menu usually mentions the problem/department that the caller is trying to reach along with the action required to complete the routing.

IVR system in action
An IVR system in action

Let us take a simple case of flight booking. Someone wants to book a flight ticket and calls up their travel agent/preferred airline to book this ticket. As soon as the greetings are done with, the travel agent’s phone system would announce ‘To book a new flight ticket, please press 1’.

IVR systems can also handle complex use cases wherein we can direct callers to the next set of menu options depending on the previous selection. Hence, an IVR menu need not necessarily end with an agent at the end of a keypress action.

For example, after ascertaining the fact that the caller wants to book a new flight ticket, the airlines/travel agent’s phone system could ask, ‘For new domestic flight bookings, please press 1. For international flights, please press 2.’

How to ensure people don’t hate your IVR experience

Good IVR systems help businesses to construct nested or multi-level IVR menus. This ensures that the customers choose the specific agent within the right team who is best suited to solving their needs. How businesses construct their IVR menus shapes the way callers feel about the brand/business. For example, having more than 2 nested levels of IVR will piss a large majority of people. So will reading out more than 5-6 options at every level.

When someone calls, they are looking for a credible solution from your team. They are definitely not looking forward to getting lost in your IVR maze.

While building an IVR menu for handling your inbound calls, it is imperative to follow some or all of the following best practices:

Greeting text

  1. Clear and short messages
  2. Make sure your business’s phone greeting has these four basic elements:
    1. A brief salutation
    2. The company name
    3. The name of the person answering [if applicable]
    4. An offer of assistance
  3. The span between the welcome message and the final prompt should not exceed 45 seconds. Your interaction will become very monotonous if your IVR greeting is too long. Be curt and move them towards a person who can deliver a solution.
  4. No sales pitch (Please!!)
  5. Do not present the action to be taken before reading out the menu — for example, ‘Press 1 for customer service’. People are listening carefully for the option that handles their specific needs and so will be waiting for that cue from your IVR menu. Stating the keypress action before the cue will make them miss out on the action required.
  6. Avoid using jargon.

IVR flow

For every customer happily using IVR for self-service, there’s another customer who would rather speak with a live agent ASAP. Don’t be afraid to give the caller the option to speak with someone at any time by breaking away from the IVR. Some other key pointers are:

  1. Avoid going any further than three menus deep — you will be testing the caller’s patience after that.
  2. For the first level, use 4 or fewer options. For the second & third levels, use three or less. Lesser time on each level followed by an intuitive menu indicates that the business cares for the caller’s problem.
  3. Allocate one keypress for taking the caller directly to the queue for reaching a person.
  4. If the caller is keying an invalid input, give them a couple of retries before putting them in a queue for talking to a live agent.
  5. Keep commands consistent. If 9 takes them back to the previous menu at one level, it should do the same thing in all levels.

Wait music

  1. Good wait music has been proven to extend the patience of a person put on hold. You can make people wait up to 30 seconds longer with a better variant of wait music.
  2. Start with a message explaining what is happening e.g. “your call is on hold and will be answered…” with the music playing in the background.
  3. Intersperse the messages and music with news snippets, e.g. sports, entertainment, weather, business, etc. These can be uploaded each day and provide a bit of variety for your customers.
  4. Think about the music that best represents your brand and how you want your customer to feel when they talk to your operators. When a person is relaxed, the heart beats at around 80 beats per minute – so music with the same rhythm will have the same calming effect; perfect for when you receive an irate caller.

IVR of the future, for all businesses

Yes, the standard IVR has been around for some time and yet the future has never been more exciting for people associated with the phone industry. The self-service nature of IVR has been the key reason for its longevity and popularity. Two things that are going to start popping up in the IVR systems for small businesses:

IVR + <insert your enterprise software> interaction

We call this interaction a dip into your database. No matter what software you are using, you can configure your IVR system to pass information to your database that can enable you to pull up relevant information regarding the customer/partner/prospect. Large organizations especially banks and other financial institutions typically use this to collect your card or policy information over the phone which is then used to pull up your relevant records. What is amazing is that this technology will soon become accessible to every small business phone team across the world.

Speech-enabled IVR

The joy of Alexa or any voice-based assistant if replicated for your business phone system will completely change the game for your business.  Imagine dialing into your business helpline, and simply stating your problem or request in your native language (no key presses required) and lo behold! You get routed to the right person (of course after listening to some great wait music but you get the point – don’t you?) who then proceeds to make your pain go away.

The advent of cloud-based software development has been a great leveler in every industry enabling small businesses to take on the goliaths and this revolution is arriving for the phones as well. Albeit a bit late, the revolution has well and truly arrived. No longer do small businesses starve for resources and capabilities, and no longer will their phone teams wither away or succumb to the pressure of purchasing the extremely expensive bloated call center software. The future of inexpensive, smart IVR is here.

Illustrations by Nikhil Kanda and Karthikeyan Ganesh

The characters used herein are owned by Warner Bros. Animation and have been used for illustrative purposes only. Warner Bros.Animation is not associated with Freshworks and does not endorse any of the Freshworks products or services.

About Freshcaller

Freshcaller is a plug-n-play cloud phone system for every type of business and helps augment customer engagement and collaboration within internal teams. Users can purchase local and toll-free numbers, get real-time visibility into call queues and ongoing conversations, route calls to specific agent groups, set up custom business hours for each department, and more.

If you want to find out more about what we do, check out www.freshcaller.com.