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The Failure of Telephony Self-Service (and what to do about it)

Whether used as a self-service tool, or to route calls, touchtone IVR is one of the most widely-used contact centre technologies, with 47% of UK contact centres offering self-service to customers through a touchtone / DTMF IVR interface. It has proven to be of use as a live-call deflection tool, with an average of 1 in 7 calls being handled entirely by self-service without requiring an agent.

As the cost of a live agent-handled call is around £4.00 - £4.50, with a telephony self-service session being 50-70p, this is something that businesses have been keen to offer where possible - but it hasn't always been popular with customers. 

If callers agree to try a company’s self-service system rather than insisting upon talking to an agent, there is an implied contract that if the self-service session is unsuitable, the caller should be allowed to speak with an agent. Few things can frustrate callers more than being hectored into using an unhelpful and irrelevant self-service system.

IVR Hell

There is a broadly positive correlation between the size of the contact centre and the proportion of self-service sessions that are abandoned in favour of speaking to an agent: the larger the contact centre, i.e. the more often customers ‘zero out’. One possible reason for this might be that larger operations are trying to do too much with their self-service. There is some evidence to suggest that this is the case, as it is very noticeable that respondents from larger organisations tend to have far more options in the auto-attendant functionality of their IVR solution.

It is not just the number of levels in a menu that can frustrate customers, but also the overall number of options within each level. As the customer cannot see what the options are, but has to listen to each, it can be a very frustrating experience, and one which the movement to visual channels such as web self-service or visual IVR via a smartphone will go a long way towards alleviating.

Increased customer effort

Customer effort can be affected by the blocks and frustrations that businesses inadvertently put up at the beginning of a voice call.

The typical IVR experience will often begin with a generic welcome announcement before offering various options for the customer to choose with a DTMF keypad (the large majority of IVR is carried out with DTMF rather than speech recognition).

Larger contact centres (usually with more departments, skill-sets and products/services) will tend to have the longest initial IVR announcement, with 36% reporting announcements longer than 45 seconds.


Even amongst those respondents for whom telephony self-service is a vital part of the customer contact strategy, it’s no use trying to shift every customer service interaction onto telephony self-service, as if customers don’t want to use IVR, they will “zero-out” (press 0 for a live agent, or try to find a similar shortcut). And if businesses don’t offer a live agent option to an irate and frustrated caller, they won’t need to worry about providing customer service to them in the future, as they’ll go elsewhere.

Overall, in 2018, a mean average of 10% of calls that go into the self-service option were “zeroed-out”: instances where the customer decides that they in fact wish to speak with an operator. This figure is lower than the historical norm of 15%.


Reasons for abandoning self-service

More than half of survey respondents agreed that customers abandoned self-service sessions because the self-service function simply does not offer what the customers want. While this at first glance may appear negative, it is the case that even in the most commoditised and transaction-driven environments a substantial proportion of customers will want to speak to a person, either because the system does not allow them to do what they want, there is a complicating factor involved, or simply that they wish reassurance or have multiple questions. 

In such circumstances, it is the customer’s choice to abandon the session, and this does not have to be a particularly negative experience as long as a clear exit path that leads to a live agent is marked early in the process. Situations where businesses hide their agents from customers, making them go around in IVR loops are the ones that give all telephony self-service a bad name.

17% of respondents strongly agree that having too many options presented to customers is a major reason for them seeking human assistance, and it is noticeable that 70% of respondents agree to some extent that the customer simply does not trust the system, preferring to have human reassurance that the request they have made has been carried out, or the information they are looking for is actually correct.

Of those using automated speech recognition, 85% of respondents agree or strongly agree that speech recognition is unpopular with customers due to lack of accuracy and user-friendliness. This is perhaps more to do with customer habits and lack of confidence with how to use the system than anything more technical. As customers continue to be encouraged to use natural language (both by successful interactions with corporate self-service applications, but perhaps more importantly through digital virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa), this issue should decline. 

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