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Why Visual IVR Is A Bad Idea

May 01, 2021, By Legacy Post

Visual IVR is an IVR application augmented with a visual interface - and it is not a good solution for your customers in most cases. If you have a customer-first mentality, stay away from Visual IVR.

...or at least some forms of visual IVR are, and if it’s anything, it’s a stop-gap technology.

Sorry, couldn’t fit all of that into the title of my blog post, but hey, you have to get your readers’ attention in these noisy times, right? Thanks for stopping by. I’d like to explain why I think the approach some companies are taking in implementing “Visual IVR” is a bit wrong-headed. Why?  Because decisions are guided by making the best use of existing technology and IT investments vs. taking a fresh look at what is good for the consumer. (Tweet this!)

What is Visual IVR?

First of all, let’s define what I mean by Visual IVR so we are on common ground. Visual IVR, as implemented by most players in the industry today, means an IVR application augmented with a visual interface. So right after calling into a company hotline, while interacting with an IVR system, smartphone technology and (most) carrier networks let us open a native mobile app or browse to a mobile Web app (e.g. pushed to the phone via an SMS text message) while a call is taking place. This app visualizes the options that the caller is hearing through the IVR, and lets them take control through this touch interface. So rather than pushing keys on the numerical dial pad (DTMF input) or using speech recognition, the user can now navigate through the IVR options using touch. This can speed up navigation significantly, resulting in reduced call duration and an enhanced customer experience. It allows for entering information more easily into an IVR system, especially alphanumeric data or names. Sounds great, right? Let me continue.

The problem with the name

As a short detour, I’d like to have a look at the name “Visual IVR” the industry seems to have selected (I find it fascinating to see how new terms come into being sometimes). It is an attempt to leverage the well-known  Interactive Voice Response technology and name, which isn’t a bad idea if you’re addressing the enterprise space. Your audience knows what it is and understands its benefits. IVR is a decade-old technology, still in wide use today for a reason (which I’ll get to in a minute). Unfortunately, ‘IVR’ has never been a friend of your customers’, given too many bad VUI (Voice User Interface) designs and missing integration with the contact center. (Tweet this!)

Re-using a name with negative connotation might not be the best way to generate excitement about the capabilities of (mobile) customer service available with the ever-growing penetration of the smartphone. Quite frankly, though, I cannot offer an alternative that encapsulates what we are really talking about here, except for: mobile customer service, or customer service “on mobile”, or simply: customer service. (Tweet this!) (In 2015 I do not have to cite extensive market research anymore for you to agree with me that everything and anything in our daily lives, including customer service, takes place on mobile-connected devices these days for so many of us.) So, for lack of a better term, let’s keep using “Visual IVR” for now.

IVR exemplifies a technology-first, not customer-first mentality

The reason why keeping IVR technology in place is not a bad idea per se is that customers are still “hard-wired” to pick up a phone and dial a number when they decide they need to get in touch with a business and talk to someone — and that’s where it’s getting interesting. Customers are still hard-wired to pick up a phone & dial when needing help. (Tweet this!) As long as that’s the case, letting customers speed up navigation through a visual IVR mobile app might make sense. At the end of the day, it comes down to how many “unique IDs” a business has established and engraved into people’s minds. Their toll-free phone number, often a vanity number like “1-800-PROGRESSIVE”, is one of those IDs. Their homepage URL is another. Their Twitter handle, Facebook page, … with any of those, though, it always comes down to their brand name. That’s what stays the same. And that’s what matters to the business, anyway. (Tweet this!)

Let’s get back to the consumer dialing a phone number. The point here is: It shouldn’t take long for them to realize that once they are aware of the Visual IVR option, the next time they need to contact the business, they might skip the call altogether and just start the journey in the mobile app. And that’s why I consider it a stop-gap technology. What’s the value of having a phone call running in parallel if mobile navigation is much quicker? (Tweet this!) I don’t need the IVR to tell me what I see – my eyes work just fine thank you very much. No doubt, a Visual IVR application can wow you the first time you experience it, but hopefully you’re thinking beyond that initial encounter with this post. And if the Visual IVR experience resulted from an outbound call, then why make that call in the first place, why not send a disposable app via an SMS directly? (I will admit, there are isolated use cases around fraud protection where placing an actual phone call gives you an advantage.)

Proponents of this technology will now say that when it comes to transferring to an agent, you will need the physical phone connection so you can be placed in the call queue – and contact centers don’t have to change anything in their infrastructure to support it! And this is where my blog started – that visual IVR is something not perceived with the greatest customer/user experience in mind, but rather with the current IT investments and contact center infrastructure in mind. It exemplifies a technology-first, not customer-first mentality. It reminds me a bit of mobile deposits that banks are so proud of these days here in the U.S. Rather than fixing the underlying problem of money transfers across financial institutions, they still have you write checks, photograph them and then upload them in a mobile app. That’s like writing an email (composed in Outlook) then printing it out and mailing it via USPS.

So that’s why I say it is the wrong approach. Rather than putting the call into a queue, companies should leverage callback functionality, which detaches the intent to connect a customer with an agent via phone from the physical call connection required. (Tweet this!) By combining callback with mobile apps you get the best of both worlds: letting customers quickly pre-qualify on mobile (or the web, for that matter) – that is, define who they are (by logging in, for example); understanding the subject of the agent conversation – then request a callback from an agent that will have all the necessary context to satisfactorily serve the customer. Forward-thinking companies like Amazon get that and have been applying this technique on their website for years.

WebRTC: The case for a better solution

Even better: make that callback through the mobile app, using technologies like WebRTC. (Tweet this!) This embedded live help feature will ensure:

  • full context by making the live conversation part of the mobile app so that customers can keep looking at their data
  • no cost and delays are incurred with unnecessary IVR calls
  • there is no waiting on hold until an agent is available
  • reduced telephony cost once the agent is connected through the app by using VoIP vs. the traditional Public-Switched Telephone Network

“Visual IVR” taken more broadly actually includes this use case: the addition of a rich visual interaction channel to an otherwise purely acoustic conversation once connected to an agent. The ability to co-browse, let the agent see what you are seeing, let them guide you in the mobile app or on the website, annotate on your screen, push documents to you, etc. NOW we’re talking. This is what a modern contact center solution should look like. But that has nothing to do with “IVR”.

When we’re dealing with mobile apps, we don’t need special-purpose frameworks for “Visual IVR”. We can simply design a mobile app that has options that work similar to what an IVR does: prequalify a caller right before a handover to an agent. That handover, however, shouldn’t happen on a phone call. That’s how we have been doing it for the last 100+ years.

Smartphones can do so much more. Let’s start leveraging their capabilities, and educating the consumers on what’s possible. Part of that education is: stop calling businesses. Start your journey with a (well-designed) app or website that integrates with the contact center.

Here is a nice video that drives this message home.

So what does the perfect customer journey in 2015 look like, starting from a customer’s decision that they need live help? Here’s the path of most convenience:

Visual IVR - Mobile App Journey

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