Friday, August 8, 2008

Good vs. Bad IVR

Which is better – a poor human call agent or poor IVR?

At least a human agent always tries to work with you

Low-quality IVR systems can be frustrating but that can also be true in dealing with a human agent. Sometimes human agents do not perform as well as they might. That may be due to poor training, lack of motivation or merely that you have hit them on the wrong day. Let us analyze some of those reasons to determine which is more likely to satisfy a caller.

The following table compares the caller experience between a poor agent and poor IVR for different aspects of the call:

Aspects of the call Poor agent Poor IVR
unusual request with difficulty creates frustration if no clear choice is available
unusual accent frustration due to many repetitions frustration due to many repetitions; recognition might be impossible
delay in making contact frustration not a problem
speedy reaction usually OK can be slow with repetitive checking of responses
data capture error prone limited to simple numeric data only

Thinking about these challenging situations, I think most of us would prefer to struggle with a poor agent than try to make the IVR system do our bidding.

Which is best - good IVR or a good human call agent?

High-quality IVR matches the responsiveness of a good human agent

IVR cannot replace human agents entirely. Some customer support questions may be ill defined and complex. Nor will any irate caller be happy to be fobbed off with a robot, however pleasant. In such cases the IVR agent will rapidly hand the caller on to a human agent.

Even a relatively good call agent may not give complete satisfaction to a caller. In some cases the caller may be at fault. Perhaps the call agent is under a time pressure or is slightly distracted by other problems they may have. Let us compare how a good IVR system may match up against a good call agent.

The following table compares the caller experience between a good IVR and a good agent for different aspects of the call:

Aspects of the call Good IVR Good agent
unusual request Good by handling or by transferring to a human agent good
unusual accent good good
delay in making contact not a problem can be frustrating
speedy reaction excellent good
data capture excellent may be error prone

The IVR system is tireless, not subject to bad mood or memory loss, is repeatable, and has instant access to an incredible databank of information. Even the best call agent will have a problem matching up to that. In some cases, a caller may even prefer an IVR agent over a human agent for personal and sensitive subjects, as in the case of returning cheques, or getting results of some medical exams.

In summary, for technical well-defined transactions, the IVR agent will often be the best choice. Part of the quality inherent in the overall IVR solution is to have the right options available (human as well as IVR agents) and utilize them in the best complementary way according to their strength.

The order of callers’ preferences

High-quality IVR is at the top and low-quality IVR is at the bottom.

Since callers clearly prefer good call agents to poor call agents, we have thus established a clear order of preference here. That is:

Good IVR or good call agent* > poor call agent > poor IVR

* The right mix of good IVR and good call agents, considering each one’s strengths in context of the particular service requested, can guarantee best caller experience and highest caller satisfaction.

Confirming IVR performance

IVR always includes ongoing monitoring of performance

The other merit of a natural language IVR system is that performance data are continually being measured. Part of the ongoing performance improvement process within an IVR system comes from the continual monitoring of the interactions between the IVR agent and the caller. Based on this data, the IVR system can be improved so that possible weaknesses are corrected.


This analysis shows why caller satisfaction can be greater with a good IVR system. Since the costs of running such a system are much better than using an equivalent wholly human agent system, the decision to implement an IVR system is usually not a difficult one to take.