By Richard Lawrence-Allen
Ever developing technologies are moulding and shaping companies in new ways all of the time and the telecommunications industry is certainly no exception. It was the development of new Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) technology that allowed contact centres to be established in the first place. Since then, new developments in computer dialling and telephony have streamlined the telecommunications industry to work more efficiently than ever.
Not all technological developments are created equally, however, and not all are met with the same level of enthusiasm. Looking at IVR (Interactive Voice Response) systems, for example, can be somewhat controversial.
Human switchboard employees were once the standard everywhere; however these positions are increasingly a thing of the past in many areas. The job of a switchboard operator is to be the first point of contact when a customer telephones into a business/service provider. Switchboard employees can then answer basic queries and route other calls to the correct department/extension. However, new technology has allowed for these human-run switchboards to be replaced by more cost-efficient, automated systems.
The most basic level of automated switchboard is the AA (Automated Assistant) system. With the interaction of Dual–Tone Multi-Frequency Signalling (DTMF) telephones, or touch tone phones as they are commonly referred to, as well as the phasing out of rotary telephones, AA technology became a widespread tool for contact centres dealing with inbound calls from the early 1980s onwards.
Automated Attendants typically will first offer a generic recorded greeting, confirming the company that the caller has reached. It will then go on to provide a list of options from which the caller can select by using their touch tone keypads. This in turn will direct their call to the appropriate agent who is able to deal with their enquiry. Furthermore, multi-level menu options can be used to better help pinpoint the correct extension to which to route the call. AA systems are also able to give time-sensitive responses, for example, offering different recorded messages/menu options in and out of open office hours.
AA and IVR systems are often mistaken as being interchangeable terms, but this is not the case. One could argue, technologically speaking, that AA is a very rudimentary form of IVR, however, IVR is designed to do much more than simple call routing. While AA systems can route calls to the correct human operator, IVR systems can do one better, handling basic tasks and providing responses to simple information requests without the need for human intervention on the part of the company.
When IVR systems were first introduced in the 1970s, they were not particularly popular initially. With the technology in its infancy, it was considered far too complex and expensive to introduce in any largescale capacity at first. However, as the technology progressed and costs went down, it would soon become a valuable asset to any contact centre operation.
IVR systems are able to interpret both DTMF responses from touch tone phones, as well as speech recognition, allowing for callers to speak their answers/enquires rather than relying on their DTMF keypad. This is particularly useful for calls using a mobile device where the device (and therefore its keypad) is held to the ear.
IVR has garnered use in many areas and has proven to be a great asset in many areas. For example, IVR has allowed many banks to extend their operating hours to offer certain services 24/7. Telephone banking using IVR allows customers to check balances and transaction histories as well as make payments and transfers over the phone at any time.
Nevertheless, IVR has attracted its fair share of criticism over the years, and its use called into question. One of the biggest complaints again IVR systems is its ease of use for customers. Many consumers have been noted to find the multi-level touch tone AA and IVR systems frustrating to use, having to wait through several different menu options before reaching their desired selection. IVR systems that process vocal responses also face issues; whilst vocal recognition is far more advanced now than ever before, it is not flawless and again several menu routes are often needed before a consumer reaches their final destination.
Moreover, with most basic resources now available to find online with great ease, direct call enquires from customers tend to be for more complex issues, beyond the capabilities of IVR and automated help. Telephone banking has seen a great decrease in popularity for example, as people have begun to prefer the easier-to-use banking apps and online services for simple requests not requiring human interaction.
These issues indicate the need to re-evaluate IVR use in contact centres. Reverting back to the use of human-run switchboards is not cost-efficient in the modern industrial environment, especially considering the volumes of call most centres receive, and so this is not a viable solution.
In an ideal world, every agent working at a contact centre would be fully trained in all areas of the company, able to handle any type of call regardless of the subject matter or complexity. This would prevent customers having to navigate through long-winded IVR or AA menus before reaching someone that is able to help them. Of course, this would involve a considerable amount of investment in each agent and a much longer training period than would normally be undertaken. The time and money that this set-up would cost makes this solution somewhat untenable and impractical to implement.
Due to these factors, instead it is a technological advancement that could solve IVR issues. If a system can be implemented to recognise a number of different factors from an incoming number alone, an algorithm can be established to anticipate exactly the service the customer desires before the call is even connected. For example, if an incoming call’s number indicates that it is coming from a customer that has recently placed an order, combined with a prior knowledge of delivery issues in that customer’s area it is likely that the customer is making a delivery enquiry chasing up their order. Therefore, the customer’s need can be anticipated and their call automatically routed to an agent in the delivery department, or a voice message detailing the current delivery issues directly without any need to go through menus or human switchboards. Equally, if a customer calls in and it is known that that customer’s subscription or trial period is coming to an end, said call can be sent automatically through to renewal/retention departments.
This system, relying on computer prediction and extrapolation of known variables is not flawless, but the more practical application the systems receive, the more accurate the results will become and thus reduce call wait times, increase customer satisfaction and take the idea of AA and IVR to the next level.