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Article : Endless Loops - Are Your Customers Getting Stuck?

There is a lot of press these days on the transition of touch-tone driven IVR to speech recognition systems. The concept is to make the interactions easier, faster, and more conversational for the caller, resulting in a higher self-service completion rate. But many of us have IVR systems that we are likely to keep for some time yet and need to maximize the utilization. And if you are converting, some time invested on a meaningful design of the interaction scripts is time well spent.

Let's go back to the basic reasons why most call centers implemented IVR in the first place. It might have been to automate the mundane easy calls so that we didn't have to answer those calls with a more-expensive human agent. Or it could have been that our customers wanted longer hours when they could access the company, but we didn't have the staff for those low-volume periods.


Maggie Klenke
Founding Partner
The Call Center School

In some cases, the IVR was implemented as a way to provide a service that simply couldn't be handled by human agents, such as private replies to follow-ups on medical test results, or support in languages that none of the staff could speak. Perhaps customers drove the decision by demanding an automated solution that wouldn't require an agent. Regardless of which of these reasons, or some others that may have justified the investment, the primary purpose is to provide the customer with a self-service option.

It is really important to keep the customer at the center of the design process. Often the scripts are confusing to the customer and make it difficult for the customer to complete their interactions with the system. The top ten common errors in script design include the following:

  • Too many choices –Just because there are 12 buttons on the touch-tone pad doesn't mean they should all be used. There should never be more than 5 choices and less is better. People just can't remember more choices than 5.

  • Too many layers –A layer is a set of menus that is connected to additional sets of choices. For example, if the first set of choices asks if the call is about appliances or furniture and the caller selects appliances, then the second layer of menus might list the various appliances and ask the caller to select one of them. There should never be more than 3 layers as it takes too long and frustrates callers.

  • Endless loops – An endless loop occurs when the choices provided do not include an escape option that would take the caller to the call center agent (or even an after-hours recording). So if the caller does not hear a choice that corresponds to their issue, they just keep hearing that list over and over with no escape.

  • Disconnect of caller – If the caller does not make a selection the first time through a menu, many systems replay the options again. But in some cases, if the caller does not make a selection, the system simply disconnects. This is incredibly rude and frustrating for the caller. The system should direct the call to the call center agent (or to the after-hours recording) rather than disconnecting.

  • Use of industry jargon – It is unreasonable to assume that callers will understand all of the unique terms and acronyms of our businesses. So if the caller is presented with a list of choices such as, press 1 for HMO, press 2 for PPO, or press 3 for Indemnity, it is likely that many will make a random choice ending up in the wrong system or agent group. Use clear common language, or ask the caller to enter their customer ID number so the system can look up the correct match for them instead.

  • Constantly changing menus – Repeat callers become familiar with the numbers that correspond to their common choices and move through the menus without listening to the lists. This is a lot like many of us use our voice mail options without listening to the instructions for the thousandth time. But if you change the options, you force these callers to spend more time listening which frustrates them and costs you money. Change if you must, but no more often than is really necessary to improve results.

  • Menu choices do not have expected results –An example of this is the menu that asks the caller which language is preferred, but then connects the caller to an agent group that does not speak that language.

  • Number first, menu item second – The script should provide the description of the choice first and then tell the caller which digit to press. If the number is given first, the caller may forget which number it was by the time the right description is heard. This results in the caller having to repeat the menu, causing caller frustration and added cost to the company.

  • Unprofessional voices – The scripts that are read to the caller should all be in the same voice and should be a voice that is easy to listen to with a neutral accent. Many companies have employees do these recordings and then mix up male and female voices as employees come and go. It is a good investment to select a professional voice-over artist to record your scripts as it will be easily understood and consistent throughout.

  • Unprofessional scripts –This is a problem with speech recognitions systems more than IVRs. Just because the system can sound more like a human interaction rather than "canned Sally" is no reason to get cute with the script. It might work in some specific companies with a fun-loving brand image, but it can comes off as unprofessional. It is fine to sound friendly and encouraging, but don't go too far.

Now that you know what not to do, let's explore some tips for good design. The most important thing to remember is that the system is meant to assist the callers in doing something for themselves. The benefits of that are caller satisfaction, higher utilization, fewer calls to agents, and lower overall cost. Poor design results in high drop out rates to agents, caller frustration, and poor completion rates in the system. So the stakes are high.

Here are some suggestions on how to create user-friendly and useful scripts:

  • Use a team to develop scripts –The team will need to involve the IT/Telecom staff who can ensure that what is desired is possible, and can help the team to explore all the possibilities of the system. The call center should be represented by both a manager and an agent. The manager knows what is desired, but the agent knows what customer ask for time and time again. Someone from marketing may also be a good addition to ensure that the system supports the brand image of the organization. If you can tap into customer input at this point, it can be very useful as well.

  • Put the choices in logical order –In many cases, the choices should start with the item that callers select most often. This will minimize the caller's time listening for their choice and toll-free service cost. However, there are some cases when the first choices are the small-volume but specialized items that need to be captured, with the bulk falling into the "all other inquiries" category. In that case, the last item in the menu may get the highest volume, but the unique items will have been pulled out successfully.

  • Test a new script thoroughly – The script and flow should be documented in a written document that is easily revised. Any new script should be tested in a variety of ways. Does each choice take the caller to the correct destination? Will callers who don't understand industry jargon understand the choices and make the correct one most of the time? Testing with outsiders is a good step and there are services that provide that massive testing process, but a group of non-employees such as family members can be used to test it as well. The last test should be with a group of user volunteers. Listen to the feedback of these testers and make the necessary adjustments before putting the script on line. This is not a time for "pride of authorship".

  • Test the system regularly – It is not enough to test a new script when it is implemented. The system menus should be tested regularly (at least once a month) to ensure that they continue to work properly, route to the desired agent group, and still make sense for the business. Minor changes in the ACD queues can result in routing to unexpected places by the IVR, for example. One company had planned to implement a division of customers by alphabet but wasn't quite ready to do that when the initial scripts were designed. So the initial script said, "If your company name begins with A through Z press 2". This script held the place of the divisions by letter that would follow shortly. But because the company decided not to divide by alphabet later on and failed to test the scripts regularly, 2 years later that same message was playing on every call. Imagine how odd that must have sounded to callers, and how much additional toll-free call expense the company incurred as a result.

In summary, a well-design IVR or speech recognition system is a benefit to both callers and the company. Customers can accomplish their business easily and quickly and the company can meet customer needs with minimal cost. So it is worth spending the time to do it right. Don't put your customers into endless loops or summarily disconnect them, or they may disconnect you from their wallets, and take their business elsewhere.


About Maggie Klenke:
Maggie Klenke is a Founding Partner of The Call Center School which provides training and educational programs for call centers. She is also an active industry consultant with more than 30 years of experience in telecommunications systems and call center management.

About The Call Center School:
The Call Center School provides call center education services including an e-learning curriculum for frontline agents, a 7-track, 50-topic web seminar program entitled The Masters Series in Call Center Management delivered via the Internet, classroom courses available as public seminars or private on-site programs, and call center management books.

Today's Tip of the Day - Offer Voice As Well As Touch Tone (Part 1)

Read today's tip or listen to it on podcast.

Published: Monday, June 7, 2004

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