As companies are working to manage exceptionally large call volumes and meet customer needs during the current COVID-19 crisis, effective Interactive Voice Response systems are now more important than ever. They can be a powerful tool in any business’s customer support strategy, combining the convenience of voice communication with the efficiencies of artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, while household items and machinery usually arrive bearing clear safety labels that read “CAUTION” or “WARNING,” the IVR systems do not. And like any tool, when used incorrectly, they have the potential to do a lot of damage. 

Research from cloud communications provider Vonage indicates that IVR systems may be doing more harm than good for the businesses who use them. The company found that nearly two-thirds of survey respondents feel that IVR systems deliver an unsatisfactory experience. Even worse, over half of respondents said that they will eventually abandon a business due to negative experiences with an IVR system.

Respondents complain that the systems force them to repeat themselves and prevent them from escalating to human agents. Both of these charges are telltale signs of subpar support systems that are ill-equipped to deal with customer needs. Below, we’ll take a close look at the findings, and strategies and techniques for moving customers away from dissatisfying IVR experiences.

Interactive Voice Response: From Hero to Horror

Entitled “How to end IVR horrors — 3 strategies to deliver a connected customer experience,” Vonage’s fascinating report uses an amusing (if not theatrical) horror movie theme to convey the dismaying, stressful experience that IVR systems can deliver. Once filled with promise, IVR technology has evolved into what the report calls a “time-sucking, customer experience-crushing monster.”

That sentiment may be a bit overly dramatic, but it certainly rings true for anyone who has first-hand experience with these systems. Chances are, if you’re reading this post, you know exactly what it’s like to call a business in hopes of getting much-needed information, only to find yourself pulled into an IVR maze filled with useless menus and pre-populated options that never seem to match up with the one thing you really need. Well, you’re not alone, and it turns out that businesses have been hemorrhaging money as a result.

The company surveyed over 2,000 U.S.-based consumers and found that over 51 percent have “abandoned a business altogether” the moment they reached an IVR menu.

The survey also found that nearly 90 percent of the money those customers were intending to spend with the offending business eventually went to a competitor instead. According to the team’s calculations, this invisible attrition costs businesses $262 per customer each year — adding up to roughly $75 billion in annual losses for U.S. businesses.

IVR’s Emotional Cost

IVR systems aren’t just costing businesses money. They’re also creating a lot of unhappiness and angst. In fact, sixty-four percent of respondents said that IVR systems had caused them to experience a negative emotion of some kind. These feelings included frustration (47 percent), stress (7 percent) and anger (6 percent) – all of which are amplified during a crisis.

According to the survey, nearly two-thirds (61 percent) of consumers feel that IVR technology delivers “poor customer experience.” Just 13 percent claimed that IVR creates a positive experience.

It’s no surprise, then, that consumers reported abandoning an average of 27 percent of all calls they made to businesses because they had reached an IVR system, and 85 percent reported having abandoned at least one call for that reason.

In the age of highly advanced, AI-powered home voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant, one would think that IVR systems should be making rapid improvements. However, the companies behind these systems have little incentive and nowhere near enough resources to replicate the more effective AI voice technology developed by tech giants like Amazon and Apple.

Thankfully, advances in other forms of customer support technology mean that IVR systems are not the end all be all when it comes to a business’s options for support automation solutions. 

The Era of Phone Calls Has Passed

In today’s digital-first world, nearly everyone you encounter carries a smartphone with them at all times, and the last thing they want to do is use it to make phone calls. In general, people are making fewer phone calls than ever before, and for good reason. With the instant gratification of the internet, and the convenience of digital messaging, the idea of sitting for minutes or hours at a time with one’s face pressed tight against a hot piece of plastic, glass, or metal is far from appealing.

Businesses who still find their customer support operations relying on outdated IVR systems would do well to consider whether AI-powered virtual agents are a good fit for their CX strategy. Until IVR catches up with the more advanced voice technology of digital assistants like Alexa and Siri, many leading companies are implementing chatbots and other AI-powered solutions to provide faster, higher-quality support. 

Shifting your automation strategy from IVR systems toward more intelligent solutions — including web-based chatbots or virtual agents for messaging apps and SMS — offers numerous advantages. And hybrid solutions give consumers the choice to use a text-based virtual agent from within the IVR structure. Meanwhile, text-based conversational interfaces give customers the flexibility to process information as quickly or as slowly as they want. 

This means there’s no need to twiddle your thumbs while an IVR system slowly reads through menu options. Nor do you have to worry about being forced to hang up and start over from square one when you get distracted and miss a key reference number, or some other piece of important information. Text support also allows for a seamless switch-off between virtual and human agents, meaning that when a problem gets too complicated for your AI, a human can step in to help without interrupting the customer experience.

What’s Your Move? 

Is an outdated IVR system angering your customers, and threatening your business’s continued success? It just might be. But fortunately, we can help you take your IVR support to digital channels – helping manage your call volume more effectively and giving your customers more options when they are in need of critical support. This also helps alleviate the wait times (and potential frustration) of your customers.

Directly works with an array of technology partners to help our customers solve their support challenges with modern, AI-powered solutions that work across platforms. We’re happy to talk with you about your needs, to give you a demo of our AI platform in action, or to simply offer some advice as you work to give your customers what they need through the current crisis.