Helping Customers Call: IVRS Tips

IVRS: Forgotten but Not Gone

While many companies are starting to understand the value of increasing customer satisfaction over the Web, it seems that most of them have forgotten about an existing and more widely used channel: the Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS). Everyone has to call up a company over the phone at least once in a while. It very often results in customers getting lost and frustrated, and potentially increases costs to the company as customers find workarounds to speak to a customer service representative or migrate to more expensive channels.

The goal of the IVRS is to reduce customer service costs by helping customers self-serve and by directing them to the right department. So given the value they represent for companies, why is it that so many IRV systems are still so badly designed?

Here are a few basics tips making your IVRS more efficient, provide a better return and increase customer satisfaction.

Information Architecture

While using a phone is easier than using a computer, using an IVRS is much more difficult from a cognitive perspective. As opposed to a computer interface, there are no visual cues; all the menus and options go in the user’s memory. Short-term memory is something humans are not very good with. So in designing an IVRS, it is important to understand how customers think, so as to minimize mental efforts.

Information architecture on an IVRS is the hierarchical grouping and sub-grouping of the information, or the information “tree” To make a structure that customers can navigate easily, you have to understand how people would tend to group information themselves; the customers’ “Mental map”. Good information architecture for an IVRS is the first critical component in helping customers find what they are looking for. To get an initial idea of the customer mental map, we often use card-sorting as a first low-cost, low-technology research method.


Most common categories should be placed first. If 80% of customers call for billing enquiries, it would make sense to place billing enquiries first in the menu. Prioritizing should be taken into account when making the information architecture. Of course, as customers are ever-changing, priorities change over time and must be re-assessed periodically.


Time matters. Customers calling a company do so to get information, and to get it quick. Many customers are busy and have only a few minutes to spare. Options should be narrated in the most concise way possible. Wording of the options should be to the point and kept the strict minimum; customers should never have to wait through long narrations that they do not need.

For example, a common problem is when companies open up with a welcome message in 3 languages, and then give the options to access that language “Welcome to this company, welcome to this company, welcome to this company”, followed by “For this language press 1, for this language press 2, for this language press 3”. No matter which language a customer wants, he or she will have to wait and listen through options in all other languages… A better way would be to provide the option to select the language at the same time the welcome message is narrated in that language. “Welcome to this company, for English press 1.”

The number of options should also be limited. No one wants to sit through listening to 9 options. Good information architecture will allow the customer to pick from clearly distinct options and drill down to find exactly what they want.

Linked and Integrated

Don’t force customers to write down another number; either give the specific number for specific purposes in customer communications, or if you only have a general number, link directly to the other department through the first number.

For example, on one large Computer & Telecommunication company’s Customer Support Hotline, calling for support on a mobile phone will result in first selecting “mobile phones” from the menu, only to be given a different number before the line quickly disconnects without an option to repeat the message. If you must refer to another number, then at least give the customer menu options like repeating the information or going back to the previous menu.

Consistency and Predictability

Menus should be consistent in order to allow customers to easily create a mental map of the system and predict the position of options without have to listen through the entire menu. If 9 is “back to previous menu” in one section, it should be the same throughout the system. The first option narrated should be 1, the second 2, etc. One company’s opening language selection menu has the first option as 2, the second one as 1. Most people are used to having “0” (zero) as the option to speak to a customer service representative.

An exception to this is when there is a re-prioritizing exercise. It is possible that certain information is more in demand in peak seasons. For example during tax season, it would be possible to bring up as the first option a shortcut to tax-related matters.

Natural Mapping

If the keypad is used for navigating linearly through the conceptual menus of the IVRS, the physical mapping of the keys with the action must have a natural mapping reference. For example by mapping the * and # symbols with backward and forward respectively.

A fellow human-factors professional recently told me about his experience with a company’s Phone Banking where, when listening to your transaction history, “Forward” is 2, and “Backward” is 3. This doesn’t match any mapping from any other device with linear navigation systems customers commonly use such as CD/DVD or MP3 players.

Voice: Speed, Tone, Clarity, Accents

Selecting the voice talent for narrating the IVRS menus in any given language is critical. Sound quality varies between phones, and proficiency in any given language varies between customers. The narration should be clear, with a tone and tempo suitable to allow most customers to understand on the first listening.

Some people have difficulty understanding a language when it is spoken with a different accent. The voice talent should have a spoken proficiency in that language and as much as possible with a “neutral” or “international” accent. I remember my Bank’s option 2 from the main menu, which completely baffled me every time I called. To me it sounded like “For cichnueueulweleweh, press 2”. No one else I asked could tell me what it meant, apart from the customer service representative.


Pauses should be placed between the options to clearly separate them, and to give time to customers to take in each option as they are narrated.

There should also be pauses in between the moment an option is selected and the start of next menu’s narration. Some customers are calling the IVRS from phones that have the keypad on the handset, as it is with mobile phones and cordless phones, and most of those customers need to remove the handset from their ear in order to see the keypad and make a selection. The pause should be long enough to give time to the customer to bring the phone back to their ear after making a selection, before the next menu narration begins.

No Advertising

Companies shouldn’t alienate customers by forcing them to listen to lengthy advertising. Particularly when it is not targeted, such as is the case when the customer hasn’t chosen any option yet. My Internet Service Provider always opens up by providing me with a minimum of 20 second advertising which I cannot skip, for something I am not interested in. There are plenty of other channels to do this, but if advertising must be placed on the IVRS, there are a few strategies to do so less intrusively and more targeted. At the very least, an option should be provided to skip the advertising.

Recognize Your Customers

While not applicable to every company or every service, personalizing contributes to creating much stronger customer relationships.

When I call up my mobile phone service provider from my mobile phone, my phone number is recognized a premium customer and I get a personalized service, such as immediate access to customer service. This is a basic example, but there is a wealth of personalized features a company can offer by identify the customer’s number.

Many IVR Systems come with a feature that asks customers to input their account number. This is helpful when customers remember their account number or have it on hand… Unfortunately, many companies have this feature enabled, but do not use it to provide a personalized service. Customer information is not passed on to the customer service representative, who then just asks the customers to identify themselves again.

Test with Real Customers

Many managers assume that their company’s IVRS is efficient. But most managers who are also customers of their own company have never called up their own IVRS, as any matter can be solved internally by pulling a few strings. When those same managers call up another company’s IVRS and get a bad customer experience, they assume their IVRS is better.

As a start, ask a few customers about their experience in calling up your company. That can provide initial data on customer satisfaction. Performing usability testing with actual customers will provide a true, objective picture of how your IVRS is performing. In a controlled environment, we give users realistic tasks to accomplish, we listen in and observe as they navigate through the IVRS. This provides a wealth of findings that lead directly to improvement recommendations. Testing can also be done over time, and combined with log analysis (just as click-through patterns on the Web) for more quantitative data.


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David Jacques is Founder and Principal Consultant of Customer input Ltd and a pioneer in the field of Customer Experience Management. He has created the first Framework that brings together cohesively every aspect of Customer Experience Management. He is also passionate about having an in-depth understanding customer values to create emotionally-engaging customer experiences not only at individual interactions but also seamlessly between them.

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