These 15 IVR System Design Tips Will Take Your Results from Customer Enragement to Customer Engagement

These 15 IVR System Design Tips Will Take Your Results from Customer Enragement to Customer Engagement

Interactive voice response (IVR) systems are the gatekeepers to the contact center. As such, they set the tone for the entire interaction. Does your gatekeeper welcome everyone in with little friction, or is your IVR system more like the troll under the bridge, barring the way until customers answer the riddles correctly?

Most people really don't like IVRs. This aversion comes honestly - there are many terribly designed gatekeepers out there. Organizations don't intentionally set out to create bad customer experiences (CX), but they often design their IVRs with themselves in mind, overly focused with preventing calls from reaching agents. The result is customer enragement rather than engagement.

Contact centers can meet self-service goals with their IVRs while still delivering good CX. The two aren't mutually exclusive. But it requires customer-centric design and regular care and feeding. This post will provide tips for designing, monitoring, and tuning IVR systems so that your customers will be engaged, not enraged.

The evolution of IVR systems

To understand how we got here, let’s take a quick look at IVR history.

IVRs have evolved over the years, both technically and in the way organizations use them. They were developed in the 1970s, but weren't widely used due to cost. These early versions used DTMF to recognize the commands callers issued from their touch-tone phone keypads.

Adoption increased in the ‘80s as the cost of technology decreased. A major milestone in the evolution occurred in the '90s with the development of computer telephony integration (CTI). This technology allowed IVRs to be integrated with other business systems such as customer relationship management (CRM) software and billing systems. This meant customers could self-serve. Now we're talking.

The evolution of IVR systems took another giant leap forward with the infusion of artificial intelligence (AI). This meant callers could now just speak their menu choices or, in some cases, just say what they need help with, no menu required.

As technology evolved, so did the way organizations used IVRs. Early versions were mostly used to help with call routing. With the introduction of CTI, businesses were still concerned with routing, but now they also became very focused on self-service and reducing average handle times (AHT) by collecting information in the IVR system and passing it to the agent interface.

Many businesses are still stuck in this latter mode and this explains the predominance of some unfriendly IVR designs.

Savvy organizations, however, have taken their IVR goals beyond call deflection and operational efficiency, although those are still very credible goals. These organizations have figured out how to accomplish these objectives while also designing their IVR systems so that customers can get to their destinations - a qualified agent or a successful self-service transaction - as quickly and pleasantly as possible

But not everyone is there yet.

Call Center Customer Angry on CallHow to enrage your customers 

Our latest consumer benchmark study revealed the stigma IVR systems need to overcome. When asked their opinions about thirteen different support channels, consumers gave IVRs the lowest net promoter score (NPS) and IVRs received the second lowest customer satisfaction (CSAT) score.

IVRs can actually trigger negative emotions like frustration, stress, and anger. How? By having the following characteristics:

  • Not including the reason the customer called in the menu
  • Forcing callers to listen to irrelevant options
  • Presenting menus that are too long
  • Preventing callers from reaching agents

This last attribute has frustrated consumers so much that there are websites that contain hacks for bypassing grumpy troll-like IVRs and connecting directly to an agent (when you call Company A, press #00 to get to an agent).

All those negative characteristics are indications that the business designed the IVR with themselves in mind rather than their customers. As a result, their customers were enraged rather than engaged.

Are IVR systems worth it?


With all the negative noise about IVR systems, it might be easy for contact centers to think they should limit their use or not use them at all. But remember, you control the quality of your IVR by how you design and maintain it.

Balancing operational efficiency with customer experience is possible. Here's an example from McKinsey:

"At one North American financial institution, for example, more than ten million customer requests are fulfilled by IVR every year, around 50 percent of the total call volume the organization receives. Compared with the cost of handling those calls with human agents, the IVR saves the company around $100 million annually"

The case study goes on to explain that after making some customer-centric refinements to the IVR, this company was able to further improve their containment rate by 2-5% AND improve customer satisfaction by 10-25%.

It really is possible to do both!

How to engage rather than enrageHow to engage rather than enrage 

Remember, your customers may be defensive when they first reach your IVR. They are expecting to have to listen to an endless array of menu options, none of which lead to a live agent. This is one time you shouldn't meet customer expectations. Instead, surprise and engage them with an IVR experience designed using the following 15 best practices.

  1. Prioritize your menu options based on common call types. If you don't want all your customers to be forced to listen to irrelevant menu options, put the most common reasons for calls at the beginning of the main menu. This will ensure a high percentage of callers will be able to "press or say 1" and be well on their way to a speedy resolution.
  2. Use your customer's vocabulary, not yours. If your IVR system prompts are full of internal jargon, that will add to caller confusion. Think in terms of what tasks customers are trying to get done and the way the average person would describe them. For example, more people might understand "To pay a bill, press 4" better than "For Accounts Receivable, press 4."
  3. Keep the greeting brief. Identify your organization and provide some warm words of welcome but keep it to about eight seconds or less. Save the marketing messages for when callers are in queue. When they reach your IVR, customers are on a mission to complete a task and long greetings will just cause delay and increase frustration.
  4. Always provide an option to speak to an agent and don't bury it too deep in your menu tree. This one is a balancing act between customer experience and operational efficiency. When deciding where to place options to access agents, it's best to err on the side of your customers.
  5. Keep main menu options to thirty seconds or less. Customers value speed of resolution. Help them get their issues resolved quickly by keeping your main menu clear and concise.
  6. Give callers time to respond. Don't rush your callers or disconnect them when they don't respond with lightning speed. Allow time for callers to remove their phones from their ears and find the right button to push. And if you ask for a membership number, know that some people will need time to dig through their wallets to find their membership cards.
  7. Provide the ability for callers to return to the previous or main menu. If you have several menu levels, callers may go fairly deep before they realize they chose the wrong path. Help them make a course correction by providing the option to back up, even all the way to the main menu.
  8. Provide reworded prompts when customers make a mistake. When callers make a mistake in the IVR, for example they enter an invalid account number, it might be because they didn't understand the prompt. Replaying the very same prompt that confused them probably won't help them correct their mistake and will likely only frustrate them. Instead, play a reworded prompt that might provide more clarity.
  9. Allow callers in queue to return to the IVR. Customers in queue may decide they would rather try their luck at self-service again, especially after your IVR system informs them that it will be a while before they can speak to an agent. Callers should be able to change their minds and return to the IVR if they think it's the best and quickest way to get their issues resolved.
  10. Pass all information collected in the IVR to the agent. Our research on omnichannel customer service revealed that customers really don't like having to repeat themselves when they switch support channels. Moving from the IVR to an agent is a similar scenario. Whatever is collected in the IVR, like authentication information, should be passed to agent so the customer doesn't need to repeat himself. This has the added bonus of lowering handle times.
  11. Integrate your IVR with your website and mobile apps. When customers choose "click to call" on your website, do you send them through the standard IVR menu? This is a great opportunity to provide them with a customized experience that's designed for website users. The same can be done for callers that connect through your mobile app.
  12. Use customer data to customize the menu. This one requires a good level of system integration, but the elevated customer experience it provides can be well worth the effort. Matching the incoming phone number to customer records can allow you to determine the most likely reason the customer is calling. If he has an overdue bill, for example, you could ask him, "Are you calling to make a payment?"
  13. Confirm selections so callers know they were understood. Speech recognition technology isn't perfect yet. Factors like accents and regional dialects can challenge even the smartest systems. Customers who use Siri and Alexa are aware of these limitations and might be skeptical that your conversational IVR understands them. Reassure them by having the IVR verbally confirm their input.
  14. Confirm completed self-service transactions. If you want your customers to continue to use IVR self-service, they need to have confidence in the process. Even if your IVR system provides transaction status, it's extra comforting to customers to receive a text or email confirming that their self-service effort was successful.
  15. Test, test, and test again. Your IVR design, and any subsequent changes, should be thoroughly tested by your contact center team. Then, have some customers test it and provide feedback. Additionally, do some A/B testing of critical design elements, such as placement of the "connect to an agent" menu choice. Testing different options should give you the information you need to make informed design decisions.

Keep Customers Happy When They Call a Contact CenterMaintaining the joy

IVR systems need regular care and feeding. Flows can always be refined based on actual performance and sometimes business conditions change and the IVR needs to change, too. To recognize when there are IVR issues that need to be addressed, you should establish metrics and monitor them regularly. Here are some common KPIs related to IVR. (Note: The names of these metrics may vary by call center.)

  • Containment rate. Containment rate measures the effectiveness of IVR systems by calculating percentage of IVR system users that both start and resolved within the IVR, without the need for a contact center agent. For businesses offering their callers the option to self-serve through the IVR, the higher the containment rate, the better.
  • IVR abandon rate. Customers who abandon within the IVR are so frustrated that they give up on self-service or agent assistance. Abandon rates that are out of variance should be investigated immediately. It might indicate a design or system issue – something that could be remedied with a different routing flow.
  • Dropout points. This information might be a metric or available on a waterfall report and it helps you troubleshoot abandon rates. Your IVR system should provide reports that show where callers are dropping out of the IVR. Additionally, analytics tools can tell you when callers hang up or "zero out" to talk to an agent.
  • Self-service engagement. This measures the number of callers who attempt to resolve their inquiry/request via self-service and is closely related to the next metric.
  • Task completion rate. This is the percent of callers that attempt self-service that are successful at completing their task. Low completion rates can mean there is a design flaw that needs to be addressed.
  • Customer satisfaction (CSAT). You should survey your IVR users periodically to find out what they think about the IVR system. This will let you assess, for example, whether ongoing enhancements are helping or hurting CX.
  • Transfer rates. This particular metric is tracked by the ACD and measures how many times agents transfer callers to other internal groups. High transfer rates can indicate the IVR isn't performing its call routing job very well.

If the ongoing monitoring of your IVR system identifies potential issues, approach the analysis methodically by reviewing reports that tell you, for example, what paths callers are taking and where they're dropping out.

Additionally, you just can't beat good old listening. Provide some of your agents and staff with several use cases, give them a standardized score sheet, and have them put your IVR through its paces. It's actually a good idea to do this on a regular basis, regardless. It can uncover issues that don't show up on reports, such as that emergency message about a system outage that was resolved weeks ago. Think of it as QA for your IVR system. For information about how to structure this process, read 5 Recommendations to Evaluate Your Chatbots and IVR for Elevated CX.

Summing it all up

The quality of your IVR is within your control and is based on the design decisions you make. Following these best practice design tips will help ensure your customers don't encounter a grumpy troll when they call your business for help. But good design isn't enough because IVR systems aren't a "set it and forget it" tool. Regular monitoring and tuning will help your well-designed IVR continue to positively engage your customers and help you achieve your business objectives.

NICE CXone's IVR capabilities

CXone Interactive Voice Response (IVR) is voice self-service that accelerates resolution, improves call routing and cuts costs with automation, all while delivering great CX. Watch our demo video to see CXone IVR in action. Then read Review & Refresh Your IVR: Make Life Easier for Customers for more tips about keeping your IVR in tip-top shape.