What to Do with Your Interactive Voice Response (IVR)

By Rusty Groos07.13.2015

Recently, I attended a credit union user group meeting and found myself looking for a way to escape the drowsy boredom of booth duty on the last afternoon of a three-day conference when I spotted a breakout session on the schedule titled, “What to do with your IVR.” 

I perked up. Hello? A session about new things to do with your IVR? That sounds perfect! As a company that has delivered hundreds of IVRs to credit unions and mortgage companies over the past 29 years, we are always looking for good new ideas. So I tossed my well-worn USA Today, put out more literature, candy, logo pens, bag tags, coffee cups, back-scratchers, airplane gliders, and solar-powered dancing hula figurines, and headed for the session.

The leader that afternoon was a confident young technical-type in a logoed polo shirt. He quickly welcomed those assembled and launched into his vision for the coming hour:  “Folks, we are here to discuss how to get rid of your IVR.” 

I hyperventilated.

After several minutes of holding my head between my knees and breathing into a discarded Starbucks muffin bag, I was finally able to re-focus on the conversation. He was telling the audience that his credit unions monthly call volume had dwindled to a mere 5,000 calls per month and, that being the case, his intention was to just shut down the IVR and send those calls to live agents in the call center.

A mere 5,000 calls? It has been a while, but back in 2008, Booz & Company published a report saying that the cost of an automated contact voice response unit (VRU or on-line) was about 10 to 15 cents while the cost to have a live-agent handle that same call would have been about $4.00. I don’t know exactly how those costs would translate to 2015 dollars, but since then, the cost of IVR has generally decreased; the price of employees, well not so much. Making a quick decision to “just send them to the call center” would likely increase the cost of handling those 5,000 monthly calls enormously. 

And what about the added expense associated with staffing around-the-clock to handle calls outside of normal business hours? IVRs provide information and access to do-it-yourself service for callers 24/7, 365 days a year. They don’t take vacations or get sick (well, unless a hard drive decides to do something socially unacceptable), and they can be scaled from tiny systems to as many lines as your call volume requires.  

I mean, I get it – IVR is not flashy. It is a workhorse, not a racing stallion. Newer services like home banking and mobile banking provide convenient access to information and services, and they are much more appealing to young technical-types like the session leader. But not everyone has easy access to a PC with Internet access or a smart phone all the time. And even if they own the technology, do they know how to use it?

In 2013, Pew Research report that 91% of people have a cell phone, but only 58% of those devices are smart phones. And I suspect that many of those with smart phones still use them like a simple cell phone. Think back – to that rainy Saturday afternoon of trying to teach your mom (again) how to navigate email on the new iPhone you gave her for Christmas two years ago. Do you really want to tackle teaching her mobile banking next?

That same 2013 Pew Research report also says that cellphone use is less pervasive for those who are 65 or older, those that did not attend college, those living in households earning less than $30k, and those living in rural areas. Do any of those groups figure prominently in your membership base? Maybe several of them? If so, you may have a lot of members for whom a plain old telephone call is their go-to means of communication. My bride (who is in none of those groups … yet) to this day immediately picks up the phone to call for help or information at the slightest provocation, even if she initiated the original interaction online.

Don’t get me wrong – I believe that credit unions need to guard their expense dollars jealously, and it makes good sense to carefully consider the access channels you offer your members to make sure that they are carrying their weight. But as you consider IVR, resist the temptation to assume that “everyone is just like me and likes what I like,” because that is rarely the case.  There are a lot of channels available and people seem to pick one that works for them and stick with it. As you assess the call volume coming into your credit union and soberly consider the best way to provide service to those members that prefer to pick up the phone and call, chances are that the best way might still be IVR.

Rusty Groos is vice president of sales and marketing for Houston-based TeleVoice, a provider of customized call-center solutions, including interactive voice response (IVR), to the financial services industry. Contact him at RGroos@televoice.com.


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