Historically, phone customer service and digital customer service have existed in silos, governed by different parts of the enterprise. Voice contact centers and IVR systems have typically been managed by the IT organization, whereas websites, mobile apps, chatbots, messaging and social media are often the domain of a separate digital organization, resulting in multiple systems from different vendors that have no way to communicate with each other or share information. This leaves customers frustrated when switching from one mode to another, dragging down CSAT and NPS in the process.
For example, when a consumer searches for something online, and can’t find what he’s looking for, he usually picks up the phone to call customer support. A helpful experience would be for the agent to say “I see that you had a problem online – let me fix that for you”, but instead, the agent will ask “How can I help you?” and after hearing the request will inquire “Did you try this on the website?” having no context on the customer’s previous activity. This is unacceptable given customer expectations today.
In recent years, companies have made significant investments in their digital systems, spurring innovation in chatbots and virtual assistants. In contrast, IVR has lagged behind, with many companies content to simply extend the lifetime of long-standing phone automation systems rather than invest in new capabilities. As a result, most IVRs currently have a clunky interface (known as directed dialogue in the industry) where customers can only select from menus or answer specific questions. Natural language – if it is available at all – is only offered in the opening “How can I help you?” question, after which the caller is constrained to follow a rigid path. These design decisions were made in the past because good speech recognition accuracy required the system to restrict what the speaker could say. This user interface is different from and less intuitive than the conversational experience of a chatbot, creating a further divide between the voice and digital worlds.
Fortunately, organizations are finally working to connect their customer experiences. Increasingly, we are seeing both voice and digital support functions reporting to a Chief Digital Officer or Chief Experience Officer who is responsible for end-to-end CX across all touch points. With that new organizational alignment, there is a lot more awareness that businesses need to unify those two channels. Furthermore, advances in speech technology now enable conversational dialogue in speech as well as text. Though it is still early, there is definitely a change happening.
Specifically, here are some ways we see businesses bridging the two worlds for improved customer experience:
- Web-Aware IVR – When a customer contacts your business, there is also a good chance that they have already tried to self-serve via your digital channels. According to various studies, 30 to 50% of customers are on your website when they call. By analyzing their journey prior to the call, an IVR can predict customer intent and quickly route the consumer to the most appropriate human or automated system. For example, if the customer has already tried the self-service options on the website, the IVR should immediately transfer to an agent rather than repeat the automation steps.
- IVR to Digital – When an IVR system needs to transfer to a human agent during a peak calling period, wait times may be unbearably long. At the onset of Covid-19, complaints on social media mentioned wait times of 3 hours or more for leading telcos, banks and airlines. In many cases, a better customer experience is switching the customer to a chat or messaging agent. Wait times for chat agents can often be much lower than voice agents, since chat agents can handle more interactions and companies can more quickly ramp up work-from-home agents for chat than voice. In cases where customers do not need an immediate answer, they can be transferred to a messaging app such as Apple Business Chat, Facebook Messenger or Google’s Business Messages. The customer can then communicate with an agent asynchronously, exchanging information as needed and receiving more thoughtful responses over time rather than waiting on hold. Apple and Google are now promoting business messaging as a preferred customer service channel. Wherever phone numbers appear in search results or map entries, or when a phone number is selected, Apple and Google offer an option that encourages customers to try messaging rather than make a phone call.
- Visual Share – When talking to a human agent or automated system, there are many times that it makes sense to see something on a screen. For example, a credit card company can present a list of recent charges so that the consumer can spot any fraudulent items. Another example is showing terms and conditions, or other disclosures, rather than having the agent read them out over the phone (this also has the benefit that the customer can accept the terms with a simple click that can be captured for later audits). By synchronizing a phone call with a web session, businesses can offer callers the ability to see information on their smartphones or other digital devices. Adding visual share to a voice call can reduce call duration by 10 – 15% and increase resolution and customer satisfaction.
- Digital Voice Calls – In some situations, a phone call may not be the best mode of interaction when voice is desired. For example, when a user runs into trouble while using a company’s app (a web app or native app), the user may want the convenience of talking to an agent without typing. In addition to smart phones, many devices such as tablets, laptops, and even appliances now have microphones. On these devices, voice calling can be done directly from the digital app rather than switching to a separate channel – dialing a phone call. A digital voice call makes it easier to implement many of the capabilities above, such as retaining the context of the prior digital journey, and supplementing the call with digital content.
- Unified Development – In the past, IVR systems and chatbots had to be built on different platforms. IVR designers were forced to create constrained dialogues due to the limitations of speech recognition. Moreover, text-to-speech engines did not sound natural enough, so most IVR audio had to be pre-recorded by human voice talents, which prevented dynamic and personalized experiences. Recent advances in speech recognition now enable accurate speech-to-text transcription that can support open-ended inputs. Neural text-to-speech engines are now good enough to sound lifelike, allowing IVR output to be scripted as text that is automatically rendered rather than recorded by a voice talent. Therefore, companies can now adopt a “Write Once Run Anywhere” approach where flows can be shared between IVRs and chatbots. Some customization will be needed due to differences between communicating visual and spoken information, but the overall conversational structure and business logic can be reused between the two channels.
Looking ahead, we are at a point of inflection where IVRs will no longer be siloed systems but rather will be embedded in the digital infrastructure of customer-centric enterprises. This change is coming, and it’s coming rapidly. New technologies are being deployed that are moving customer experiences towards natural conversations by speech or text. In the near future, IVR and chatbots will be built off the same platforms, enabling a much more unified and seamless customer experience across both voice and digital channels. Customers will be free to engage with companies in their channel of choice, with the comfort of knowing that journeys will be connected and that results will be consistent and satisfying.