A Curse called IVR


IVR or Interactive Voice Response system is the technology that lets a machine interact with human being either through voice through a series on keyboard inputs, usually on phone. This technology is widely used by consumer based services industry such as banks and telephone service providers. The pre-recorded message that you hear when you call your bank to ask about your bank balance is your first interaction with IVR. Next it takes you through a series of menus and makes you press innumerable keys on your phone pad, and most of the time to leading you nowhere, or to a discovery that there is no menu option available for your particular query. You struggle to figure out how to reach a customer service agent so that you can talk to a real human being, make him or her realize your frustration with the organization and if possible find a solution for your problem or a small answer for your query.

A simple Google search on the net and a bit of common sense tells me that the IVR, also called automatic assistant is used by the organizations that have to handle high call volumes. Having human being to attend the calls is obviously costly. I buy the argument for all the mundane activities, where I really do not care for a real voice to help me out, but for an organization to think that their menu is exhaustive enough and not making available the option of reaching a real agent available is a real pain. I am sure they would have enough data to prove that the IVR is justified as most people call for mundane tasks only (e.g. if it is a bank, people call up to check their balances only, and if it a telecom company, customers call up to check their billing status only). But where I have a big complaint is that they assume that their menu is exhaustive and it can take care of my all possible needs. Having said that, the real customer service agents are not a big help as they also hardly know anything beyond the menu options, but at least you have an opportunity to make an attempt to help them understand your problem, and hope that someone would respond.

Besides these usual cribs, my biggest problem is for services that these companies provided solely through phone and hence leaving you with no option but to be entangled in the web of IVR. Like I recently discovered that if I have to change my address for my credit cards, there is no other way except calling the phone banking and requesting them to change, who would in turn tell me drop a simple application in their drop box somewhere which will be sent to the head office and would take at least 9 working days to change my address. There is no real office for credit cards, so you can never reach a real person for them. There are banks that issue you the credit card, but you can not visit them for any query related to credit card, your one and only savior is the phone banking no. Should it not be mandatory for the service providers to have a physical facility where customers can walk in and have their problems sorted out? Of course it would mean you need to have staff that can understand the business they are in and be able to help the customer with the solution, and that’s again a grey area for most high growth service providers.

The average time to fiddle around and understand the menu can be as high as 20-30 mins, and you may still not be able to find a solution for your problem. I wonder if these organizations have ever done a survey of customer frustration (yes, satisfaction just does not fit the description) from IVR and call centers responses, I would love to see the results. If there is a smart filmmaker I am sure he can carve out s script out of these responses that the customers give out of their frustration, the ones the IVR gives and the ones that are given by the executives by virtue of their lack of knowledge.

If you notice recently all the phone banking numbers have been changed to mobile numbers, and the toll free numbers though are mentioned on the websites (Is this a regulatory requirement for Banks to provide a toll free no?), but they never work. You would hear a welcome message and then your call will be lost in the universe. Is there a revenue sharing business going on to scratch each other’s back at the cost of the customer again?

If the service providers shift a bit of their focus from customer acquisition to customer satisfaction, I am sure this can be a differentiator for them in the long for them, when they would have to shift the focus from acquisition to retention. After an industry reaches its maturity level, the number of customers would not go up at the same rate, but the customer churn would increase based on the quality of service provided. This will become more relevant as the services themselves will become more and more standardized and organizations would struggle to be different. I think its time for the Banks and the telecom companies to start thinking on these lines and focus on customer service and value the time that the customer spends interacting with the organization. If not for the customer’s sake, probably for their own future’s sake…

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