Disclaimer - If the title seems a tad bit haughty and superficial, my apologies. But then that was just my role for the last 14 months of my life, so please bear with it! :)
Interactive Voice Response system - It was only in the August of last year that I fully digested the true meaning of the words. Up until then, I was as any other lay man when it came to understanding what a customer care system was like.
Now if I have to rewind in time and go back to my Pre IVR days (I fancy that term now. I'll tell you in a bit why! ) I would pick my phone to call the customer care centre of a company (if at all it came to that) only to talk to one of their customer care representatives. This was my primary motive of calling any of those toll free numbers that was ever published. I didn't care what services they offered and I really didn't care about the plethora of products they had. All I intended was to speak to a human so that he/she can fix my problem. Period. One number I called often was ICICI coz they never entertained much in their branch office (god knows why they had it open in the first place. For most of the queries I asked them, they would promptly reply - 'please call our customer care number'!). It was obviously out of desperation that I called them. The funniest part about them was the first thing you heard was 'For Bank accounts, press 1'. It seemed silly to me then that a bank would want to filter their customer based upon bank accounts. (in the beginning I actually could not understand what the automated voice was saying. Went something like Baa counts, press 1 which made me think it was a particular kind of account!! :x).
Then is when I joined an organisation who actually made those IVR systems. Frankly the term IVR in itself never made much sense to me till then. Like I said, it was only customer care agents I wanted and to me a toll free number was a gateway to get to them. Now I was in a position to appreciate what those systems were like. I was introduced to the whole world behind that voice who spoke to you representing an organisation. Ironically it is only after I left the organisation (that makes me into Post IVR days), that I am actually jotting down something about IVR. (blame it on my laziness!)
Lesson 1- Agents may not be the best help
The first thing I learnt as I got used to it all was that organisations invested a huge chunk of money (Really huge!!!) just so that they can provide automated service to their customers without the need for human intervention. That meant that if you and I as customers invested a little bit on patience then we were better off dialling those ubiquitous customer care number and looking (or rather listening) for the right option to help us out rather than the agent. Moreover, it was not the case that any agent were completely equipped to handle all your queries. It is very likely that you encounter an agent who is in no better shape than yourself to help you simply coz of the lack of skill set (Most big call centers will have their agents trained on specific skill sets) or because of system limitation which did not let the agent perform all of the tasks. (An agent can perform only so much that the system he is sitting in front of also called as agent desktop will allow him to do)
Lesson 2- Short cuts to reach the agent
Now whatever said and done we still like to talk to that agent fellow :D. Knowing this mentality of us humans, most organisations try their best to not lead you to an agent :) (which is to say not provide a spoon feeding option of speaking to agent upfront). So the work around is you could try any of these techniques below and if you are lucky you could end up with a random skilled agent (who may not be the best person to answer you so in all likelihood he/she'll ask you to call another number :P)
1) incorrect entries. - The way most IVR systems work is in case there is a menu (a voice prompt asking you to choose one among the many options) which demands an entry from the caller, they'll give you three tries to do it. If you err continuously for three times, then depending on your luck you could either land with an agent or have your call disconnected! A word of caution though - the moment you enter their systems, the first thing will be language selection. Be wise enough to give a correct entry here at least else you will land up with the wrong language agent :) Now a menu can be separated based on two things - One is an option entry - (you'll need to select from a number of options ranging from 1,2,3 etc) or a digit entry (where you'll be required to enter an account number/membership number/date of birth/amount entry). Mostly during digit entries is when you get lucky enough to reach an agent with incorrect tries(Mostly!!)
2) Providing no input - This is another technique which may work in some cases. Any IVR system will wait for a standard 5 seconds for you to enter an input failing which it will consider that as a no input condition. Like the incorrect case, if you did this for three time consecutively, you could also end up with an agent (Again depending on your luck!)
3) Pressing 0/9 - Most IVR systems (increasingly they are doing away with this) have a hot key. Which means at any point of time if you pressed it, you could reach to an agent. The keys mostly are 9 or 0. It could also be * or #.
Lesson 3- The solution to 'Please wait. Our customer care representative will attend to you shortly'
The truth is whenever you hear this message, it could either be that you'll never be attended or you will be attended within the next few seconds. If you are lucky enough though, you'll get to hear the time (in the next few min and sec) for which you'll need to wait in the queue to get to an agent. In which case you can be sure that there is going to be light at the end of the tunnel. But very often, it is perfectly possible that if you call in during non office hours or during holidays you'll endlessly listen to this message (coz there will be minimal agent availability during non peak hours and during holidays!)
Lesson 4 - Do not cut the line if you are angry
As a general call centre practise the agents are never supposed to cut the line. So in case you are pissed off, the least you can do is say a few words (which their recording system will pick up and which will then pop up to the supervisors for closer scrutiny). When I say words it should be something like 'extremely poor service', 'pathetic service', 'very disappointing', etc etc which will trigger the system to automatically pick that call for review (Most good organisations will have a recording system in place which will have this feature that will pick up the words or even the variation in the voice modulation to gauge the mood of the customer and submit it to the supervisor for closer scrutiny. expletives may not help as such conversations will be removed :P).
That's all about the small little gyaan that I wanted to share :). Over the last 14 months or so (the total IVR days of my life), I learnt a thing or two about these contact centres. One important thing I learnt is that if you are willing to be patient, chances are that you'll find what you need within the automated system itself without the need to reach an agent. Maintaining call center agents are getting increasingly expensive however there is equally rising stress on customer experience which will demand that an agent be available to take care of the irks a customer faces. The balance is in providing automated service but also making the agents available in case of a need. Most good organisations strive to attain this balance.
Now it would be nice if we could have a glimpse of the features that are offered in the IVR. Few organisations do provide this list in the customer kit (be means of a graphical diagram like this . Lately, its becoming a trend to have this tree like feature list appear in your mobile phones by means of an app or a link which you can open in your phone browser so that you could drill down and choose the very option that you like. Seamless integration between voice and data seems to be the trend. You could check out this link for a kool demo - Visual IVR