You Are Now Free To Move About the IVR

Searching online for disaster stories about convoluted telephone systems and the customer frustrations which ensue (which has become a near-sport/ hobby of mine, since I started this blog) can be very entertaining reading in an odd, perverse way– and no other industry is more prevalently featured in these “IVR Hell” stories than the airline industry; the volume of transactions which are processed daily in order to keep passengers in the air and at the right transfer points is staggering. The expense and total committment that travel requires from passengers raises the expectation in the public’s minds that all the moving parts of air travel *need* to function without a hitch in order for them to make it to their destinations. They don’t even want to entertain the possibility of “what if…?” delays/weather/cancellations happen — they just simply can’t. They need it to work.

Factor in the incredible emotional element woven into travelling by air in the form of sudden and unexpected changes in a passenger’s situation: a death in the family, an unexpected shift of work commitments, jobs lost and gained, relationships taking unknown twists and turns — all can necessitate high-stress last-minute changes to one’s travel arrangements.

When changes do need to be made to an itinerary, the stats will tell you that 36 percent of online US customers prefer self-reliance for service. This percent jumps to 46 percent for the dewy 18-29-year-old demographic. As aptly put by Brian Jameson in his Blog: “Top 5 Reasons Customers Dread The Call Center”: “Customers in the social age are looking for simple, fast resolutions to their problems. By not providing a self-service option for your customers, you could be frightening web savvy consumers by requiring them to dial you for basic customer service requests.”

I’m *slightly* outside of that target group which prefers to hunt down solutions on their own via a company’s website — be that as it may, I still solve the majority of my concerns/requests through turnkey website self-help features…unless things are really serious. Unless my situation is dire/time constricted/what I perceive to be overtly complicated — then, I default to calling in — with the hopes of talking to an actual person. I guess my rationale is that a real, live staff member has inside knowledge, secret solutions, perhaps even empathy, or may know of loopholes which will enable me to make the changes I need to make which cannot be intuited by a website. “When customers are in situations where they have to give something other than numeric information, they have to speak to a human. That is a drawback, ” says Jim Mitchell, manager of voice communications at Ceridian, “because it adds to call length and expense.”

A considerable factor in people’s hesitancy to call into an IVR — especially in situations like air travel re-bookings, where time is of the essence, the ability to re-book your flight becomes almost competitive with other passengers, and a caller’s patience is stretched to unknown limits — is the inaccuracy of speech recognition utilities used by most airline call systems. (I recently watched a broadcast from the Just For Laughs Festival, where a comic was recounting his experiences with an airline IVR, where he clearly intoned: “San Jose” as his city of choice, and he imitates the deadpan of the IVR voice, chirpily replying: “Thank you. You are now booked on the….9:00 AM flight to……STOCKHOLM!”)

In the Destination article: “Avoiding the Speech Rec. Wreck”, Coreen Bailor states: “…speech applications cost about three to four times more to develop than touch tone versions, which allow customers to respond to prompts with their keypads, which is more accurate.” Seems like a no-brainer — when it works well, (meaning: there is a high capture rate of what you’re inputting {intoning} into the speech synthesis, it works blissfully well. When it doesn’t — frustration breeds. (Background noise, accents and colloquialisms can all derail a speech synthesis’ ability to help you.) The exasperation at being misunderstood  — at any time — is intense; by a machine it is doubly vexing (as I waited for a cab outside my hotel on a business trip recently, I overheard a man on his cell phone — obviously calling an airline’s automated system — intoning with painful clarity, more than a little too much volume, and the slowness with which one would speak to a disobeying child: “change…….flight….. CHANGE……..FLIGHT!!) All is not flawless with DTMF (touch tone) applications either — the chance for failure there lies in too many options; the fear that selecting the wrong option will send you back to the start of the process (more than likely), or the stark dread when *none* of the options they’ve laid out seem to reflect what you need. Compound that with redundancy (your information being asked for during numerous steps along the process — only to have the information *again* gathered by a live agent) — we want the shortest route to correcting and changing our travel plans — and sometimes the determining of that shortest route is anything but intuitive.

Join me next week, won’t you — where I will blog about the brilliant, hysterical, and occasionally painful viral sound files which make their way around sound studios from time to time; which feature celebrities in voice-over sessions gone awry….jewels which never fail to make us audio geeks chuckle.

As always, thanks for reading!



  1. Any company planning an IVR project will do wisely to start with understanding who their customers are and what do they want to accomplish. From there you figure out what are the best ways to serve your customers’ needs. For example, the use of web or IVR technology may be more accepted among younger customers and speech recognition may encounter challenges if you have customers from a lot of different ethnic groups phoning in.
    In terms of speech recognition challenges, sometimes allowing the caller to either say what they want or to use touch tone can eliminate some of the problems. Also, it is a good practice to add a confirmation step where the system verifies if it understood the caller right (“Do you want to book a flight to Stocholm? Say yes if this is correct, say no if this is incorrect”).

    • voicegal Said:

      Absolutely correct. Unfortunately, when I’m hired to voice such an IVR, it’s amazing just how many companies miss that crucial step of “profiling” (for lack of a better word) who their clientele might be, and how best to reflect that demographic. Unfortunately, many just think an “all-purpose” approach will do the trick, like “all-season tires.”

      Thanks for your feedback, Kirsi, and for reading!

  2. For some reason I have found that phone system customers have a very difficult time telling me what their customers are going to expect when they call. In fact, many times the question just takes them by surprise and you can see the “I have no idea” realization hit them. I often have to do an exercise with them of walking through why a customer would call, mostly to cut back from the myriad option they want me to program (“can we get more options than just zero through nine?”).

    My age group is outside the self-serve demographic, but I’ve always been extremely self-serve-oriented. So much so that when I traveled constantly for work in the days before PDA phones with internet service, I paid a lot for a device that could *just* let me book and re-arrange flights and hotels in my hand without calling. The only thing that annoys me more than having to talk to a human is having to talk to those speech recognition systems however.

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