Articles/Intelligent IVRs And The Art Of Conversational Design

Intelligent IVRs And The Art Of Conversational Design

Advances in Voice technology and conversational IVR (Interactive Voice Response) technology should mean contact centre wait times and frustrating number-based triage systems are a thing of the past. Yet, the majority of automated contact centre experiences still leaves us wanting to throw our phone against the wall.

So what is going wrong and what should brands, wanting to realise the potential of this technology, consider if they're going to create seamless voice experiences and record-breaking NPS (Net Promoter Score)?

In a rare departure from my regular opinion based musings, I thought it best to go speak to some experts. So I rounded up Dave Flanagan from customer experience powerhouse Genesys and my colleague at industry-leading conversational design agency VERSA, Tyler Hamilton.

Here are 5 things you should know if you want to avoid the smashed phone bill.

1. Start with failure in mind

Although it might seem like a backwards approach, successful projects must start with failure in mind. More accurately, it begins with a consideration of how to fail gracefully. 

If failing is tripping and ending up on your arse, failing gracefully is the same trip styled into a roll, and back to your feet without spilling your beer. Both will be remembered, but only one makes you a hero.

Now with Google Dialogflow and Amazon lex boosting speech to text accuracy of +95% it is not a failure to understand what is being said. As Flanagan points out, it is the planning for what happens when you do not have an automated response set up.

Designing solutions that cater for what happens when things 'fail' implicitly set your project up for success. Understanding how to communicate not having an answer and leaving the customer experience intact is precisely why good conversational design is integral to the success of these projects, Hamilton says.

2. Robots + Human = BFF

Despite the inevitable day when the robots rise up to killing us all, for now, we are on good terms. As such, IVR projects must identify and embrace opportunities to work together.

A common misstep is to forget that these automated systems can be just as useful to call centre staff as to the customers they are communicating with. In fact, Flanagan suggests, starting with a deep dive into what areas contact centre staff identify as repetitive is often the best place to start.

Keeping your humans happy by involving them closely in the discovery phase allows for deeper insights and all-important internal adoption advocates. These deeper insights can be extremely valuable when trying to develop a tone of voice, Hamilton mentions.

Although many contact centres work from a script, conversational design needs to include guidance around the delivery. Intonation, cadence and pronunciation mean that the same text can be spoken in wildly different ways, and with significantly different receptions.

"A great example of this was a project where contact centre staff identified repeated customer difficulty understanding a specific product name, and would often ask the staff to repeat themselves", Hamilton notes. Within the conversational design, the solution was to slow down the pronunciation of the product and cater to the predicted user requirement to repeat the name.

Identifying how much of a task you want to automate will bring the best results, Flanagan adds. Automating the identification check at the start of call saves staff time and gives them information on a user before the call is connected. Handing back to the Voicebot to complete simple tasks, like a change of address, allows you to maintain the human touch and enjoy the benefits of automation.

Understanding how to make the most of the robot's love for repetitive tasks whilst looking for the most significant benefit to both your customers and your contact centre staff is a crucial consideration. 

3. Low hanging fruit  

As mentioned above the robots will soon rule the world; however, we are not there yet. In fact, when it comes to myriad complexities of human speech and language, it is safe to say we are some way off.

"You do not need to read every call transcript to find the low hanging fruit", refers Flanagan about another area where technology can help. Call transcripts can be automatically analysed, identifying not just the customer's enquiries but also how they were answered. 

"It is exactly that kind of first-hand data that I use when developing a tone of a Voicebot" Hamilton adds. He then goes further to say "A common issue is assuming that a robust set of FAQs can serve in place of conversational copywriting, that is just not the case".

Instead, both agree that combining their approaches is the best way to find the right solution for consumers. "And it is worth noting that a Voicebot is not always the best solution" Flanagan reminds us, and he is right. 

Another important lesson for voice-based projects is to remember that voice is not always the answer. There are examples where transferring the conversation to a chatbot, sending a document or redirecting to a video asset on your website makes for a better experience.

It is essential to recognise that conversational IVRs are not there to replace your website, your chatbot or your staff, but rather provide an intuitive way in which your consumers can engage in the channel they prefer and easily navigate between each as desired (an omnichannel approach).

4. Separate the art from the science

Intelligent Voicebot projects are highly technical and can incorporate cutting edge machine learning and AI, but that is not the whole picture.

The technology provided by the likes of Genesys is industry-leading. Still, as Flanagan is happy to admit "if you want to make the most out of the technology, you need to find a conversational strategy and design partner".

Hamilton, perhaps unsurprisingly, agrees "of course I'm going to say good conversational designers and copywriters are worth their weight in gold!"**

Unlike traditional copywriting, in the form you are no doubt enjoying now, conversational copywriting has far more complexity. The first thing to consider is variable content. Unlike your website written FAQs, conversational design needs to account for multiple responses if it is going to move from functional to engaging.

"Imagine not just writing an answer but having to work through every conceivable variation, that's the challenge", Hamilton says. 

Flanagan is in agreement. "Your Voicebot needs to be both useful and engaging. Users expect a seamless and intuitive experience, and that requires the art of empathetic conversation design".

Frustrating as it might be for brands wanting to buy an IVR and simply 'switch it on', that is just not going to work. The surprise and delight, and resulting increase in NPS, that should be the goal of this technology will only be achieved if the investment in the tech is matched by a different but, equally important investment in the conversational design.

5. Always play the long game

Investing in conversational IVR technology is a bit of a business no-brainer. Even minimal automation can expand how and what you can provide your customers. Not to mention how much money can be saved, but the exciting prospect of record-breaking ROI can mean brands fall into the trap of trying to run before they can walk.

For Flanagan, this is a well-trodden path. "It would be great to launch with 99% accuracy and an answer to every question, but we don't live in a perfect world. Planning for ongoing monitoring and interactive improvement is critical for long term success."

The longer-term view is also vital in terms of conversational design strategy. "I'd love to say that I could nail it in one, but in reality, the copywriting on successful conversational design projects has to be iterative," Hamilton adds.

What he is referring to is the role first-party data plays in perfecting your Voicebot. Close monitoring of how your users are using your IVR means you can eliminate the need for guesswork, and proactively react to real-world cases. This interactive approach, if part of your long term strategy, can quickly improve your accuracy and cater for users who rarely follow, what Flanagan calls "the happy path".

Playing the long game allows for an agile approach to your copywriting, incrementally improving it with every sprint, as you edge towards greater accuracy and customer satisfaction. This agile approach also enables you to closely monitor the data provided by these channels, allowing you to inform your broader strategy.

A byproduct of this kind of automation is the ability to track customer conversations far more closely. These systems are capable of monitoring, not just predefined keywords and phrases, but also designed to recognise and highlight trends and peaks in traffic in real-time. 

Understanding your data, whether through live dashboards or triggered alerts, is the real long-term value brought by integrating these automated systems. 

Final words…

Despite all of us carrying a device capable of digitally sourcing an answer to every conceivable question, call volumes are on the rise. Telstra recently reported a 2,000% increase in calls to Government call centres. Gartner data also states "while we see an exponential increase in digital engagement, this is not resulting in a decline in voice as a support channel." It seems there are still specific answers that are sufficiently important, that only a call will do.

This ability to communicate directly with customers represents a fantastic opportunity for brands to market themselves and solidify their relationships. However, get the experience wrong and risk losing them forever. A 2020 CX report from Zendesk found that over half of the respondents would consider switching to a competitor after only one bad call centre experience.

The cost-saving potential of conversational IVRs, plus the ability to meet growing consumer expectations regarding 24/7 support, make them too attractive to be ignored. Still, this automation is only the tip of the iceberg.

Beyond the basics of understanding what we say, and increasing; what we mean, the robots can also detect a lot more from our voices. Sentiment analysis will soon allow for subtle changes in our voices to give an indication of stress levels and even buying intent. With this detection available, automated conversations could be tailored to adapt in real-time, de-escalating stress levels or changing the language to get customers over the line to purchase.

Intelligent Voice projects that ignore the central role of conversational design, or neglectfully integrating their communication channels to create a truly omnichannel experience, run the risk of doing more harm than good. Without a secure conversational strategy and design, the future potential of the technology will be hard for brands to realise.

Voice technology is leading the way in terms of how we should be investing in automation but, as Haffenden summed up succinctly, "The future is not voice, it's conversational."