A Good Double-edged Sword


Consumer expectations rise every year — we want it easier, faster, immediately if possible. That rise correlates to an increased use of technology in customer service. Both in cause and effect.

In the customer service world, interactive voice response (IVR) is one of the staples. We’ve watched it go from hard-to-use newbie to awkward teenager to competent veteran. Along the way, it’s changed customer expectations.
In the early years of IVR — let’s be frank — the technology was a little rough. It wouldn’t necessarily understand us and wouldn’t give us a live agent option unless we hacked the code right through the phone, Matrix-style (not possible).

697868_56395757While some IVR systems today are deficient in the use category (i.e. the designer gave it a bad call menu that confuses and annoys callers), most have up-to-date technology behind them, including VoiceXML programming. (VoiceXML is kind of the HTML of voice applications.) And in the past decade, computer-processing speed has gotten faster and faster, enabling huge advances in IVR (along with plenty of other technologies).

In the past, IVRs didn’t communicate with us all that well because they didn’t have the processing speed for accurate interpretation of our complicated speech or natural-sounding speech of their own. Today, they do.

Faster, better IVRs have become the quick alternative to speaking with a live agent. We don’t even have to wait in a call queue for an agent — answering an unlimited number of calls on the first ring is a main function of IVR.
Most of us are too busy to want to talk to an agent, anyway. We’d rather just get our account balance (or whatever information or assistance we are seeking) and move on with our lives. It’s only the most complicated issues, like a billing dispute, that gets us on with an agent — and the inevitable polite chitchat and overview of new features or offerings, extending the call. We don’t have time for that. The modern world moves too fast. But the question is whether the chicken or the egg came first.

Take a typical customer call before IVR came along. In many, many cases we could expect to wait on hold for a half hour or more to get an agent on the line (actually, we can still expect a long wait for an agent today, depending on how many agents there are and how busy they are). Then IVR came along and, even in the early days, reduced the time we had to wait to talk to someone (be that a person or a robotic, awkward, disembodied voice). With the new technology, we came to expect a shorter wait.

Fast-forward to today, with high processing speed making IVRs nearly as capable as live agents and making most calls much faster — as quick as a minute or two to check a balance, etc. So now we expect immediate pickup and a shorter overall time for calls.

It’s a double-edged sword for any organization providing customer service. Add technology to meet customer expectations: raise expectations. Add tech to exceed customer expectations: raise expectations again.
Either way, consumer expectations are going up. Which is, again, a double-edged sword. It keeps organizations sweating but also pushes them to improve their customer service.

Charlie Smith has written about technology and life for almost 20 years as a reporter, technical writer and blogger. He currently foists his ideas onto the world as the Marketing Communications Director for Plum Voice, an IVR-industry leader, through Plum’s IVR Deconstructed blog. Smith has a B.A. from James Madison University, and can be reached at 303-433-3755.