New IVR efforts unlock voice mail jail

Time Integrated Communications Research Inc. (Time iCR), a service bureau based in Ottawa, is trying to take customer frustration out of integrated voice response (IVR) technology.

According to Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., by 2005 more than 70 per cent of customer service interactions for information and remote transactions will be automated.

With percentages this high, Time iCR recognized a need for IVR solutions that would keep callers out of “voice mail jail,” a term describing a person’s frustration at being lost in a company’s phone system due to long and complex menu options.

“There has been a backlash on menus, poorly set up menus [that prompt the caller], ‘If you want this, press one. If you want that, press three. And if you want something else, press 14.’ By the time you [get to the end of the options] you have forgotten what ‘press one’ was all about,” said Botho von Hampeln, CEO of Time iCR.

He said speech IVR technology allows callers to escape frustration.

“Today, speech IVR asks the caller, ‘How may I help you?’ And then it listens to keywords and answers and interacts with the caller. In certain cases, IVR has been so good that it takes two or three sentences back and forth before the caller realizes they are dealing with a machine.”

Von Hampeln said one of the major benefits of IVR technology is cost savings. Companies would not be obliged to repeatedly train as many call centre agents to read information over the phone. As well, by employing a service bureau such as Time iCR, businesses pay as they go without having to put down capital.

He explained that if a company had 100 phone lines, the cost of running an in-house system could reach $800,000 with $100,000 of staffing per year on top of that and a $20,000 service contract to maintain the software.

Drew Kraus, a principal analyst with Gartner in Boulder, Colo., said Time iCR is “saying all the right things” when it comes to services and solutions. He added that success depends on strong application development skills.

“Poorly designed applications…are the downfall of IVR. If you do it right, you end up with happy, well-served customers. If you design your application poorly, then customers take their business elsewhere.”

Fred Manus, marketing manager for self-service solutions at Nortel Networks Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., said although service bureaus have been growing in number, traditionally people purchase IVR equipment from firms like his.

“We can work closely with the customer and deliver exactly what they want because we have control over all aspects of the solution,” Manus said.

Von Hampeln said the main technical issue for a network manager