Out of the IVR Frying pan, Into the Chatbot Fire?

February 18, 20199min

The battle between chatbots and IVR is coming to a head.

Until now, customer service routing has predominantly been the job of IVR (interactive voice response) technology. But now chatbots are threatening to take over the role of primary customer routing tool.

Both channels have their merits – and their shortfalls. IVR is time-tested, but much-hated. Chatbots are quick and trendy, but not without their teething problems. So, as they battle for the top spot in the automated customer routing category, is one tool truly better than the other?

Here we investigate the IVR vs chatbot debate. Are we leaping from the IVR frying pan, straight into the chatbot fire?

IVR: sizzling tech, or burnt customers?

IVR, or interactive voice response, is the formal name for an automated switchboard. It’s the long-established technology behind the phone trees that route calling customers to the correct agent or department. It’s familiar, and accessible for those with eyesight issues or poor internet access.

Routing customer contact correctly is essential for any business. Effective routing reduces customer wait times, and ensures they reach the right agent to best serve their needs. With IVR, businesses can achieve these benefits at a reduced cost, even with high call volumes. IVR can also collect useful information to help agents support the customer.

But there’s the dark side of IVR. After all, it is IVR. Otherwise known as the dreaded automated phone tree, liked by a paltry three percent of customers. We all have memories of dealing with the robotic voice on the end of the phone. The one that seemed to never understand a word we said.

We’d end up repeating ourselves. We’d shout ‘agent’ or ‘human’ down the phone, in the vain hope of getting the answer we need. Often, we’d end up through to the wrong department anyway, if we hadn’t already hung up the phone in disgust.

Chatbots: bringing the heat, or going up in flames?

With IVR so liable to frustrate customers, businesses are looking for alternative options for customer service routing. This search was answered by chatbots, the modern descendant of IVR technology. Like IVR, chatbots are used to authenticate, route, and support customers automatically. However, they do this online via a chat interface, rather than over the phone.

There are a few benefits chatbots bring to the automated customer routing table that IVR doesn’t. For example, because they’re text-based, chatbots aren’t confused by accents or poor connections. So, they understand customers more consistently.

Chatbots are also more flexible than IVR. They let customers change their mind about details already provided, and don’t get confused when amending details.

When they work to our advantage, chatbots turn automated routing into a friendly conversation. However, a hasty chatbot deployment can still lead to getting burned. When they aren’t deployed or used carefully, chatbots are just as liable to cook up customer frustration as IVR. They can misunderstand, provide limited options, and just plain fail.

Will we ditch the frying pan?

IVR is almost universally hated and can act as a hurdle for customers trying to reach you. With so many customers adverse to IVR, other automated routing options – like chatbots – look more appealing and more future-proof.

Plus, chatbots are still learning. As artificial intelligence technology continually improves, so are chatbots and their capabilities. For this reason, there is an argument for chatbots taking over as the ruling routing technology. However, it’s worth noting that voice recognition technology is also getting smarter. (As seen in Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant.) IVR, then, could also stand to improve over the coming years.

All things considered, it seems unlikely that chatbots are going to replace IVR entirely. Rather, chatbots and IVR both have benefits to offer businesses. They serve different customer channels, and there’s room for both in an omnichannel customer service strategy.

Care in the customer service kitchen

So, how can these technologies be used to cook up great customer service, without setting off the fire alarms? Whether you choose the tried and tested IVR routing, the up and coming chatbots, or a mixture of both, here are a few key rules to prevent getting burned.

  1. Keep the process short and sweet for both technologies. If you leave something in the frying pan, or over the fire, long enough, it will always end up burned.
  2. Make it easy for customers to escalate to a human. That way, if something goes wrong or the customer is in a rush to talk to a human, they can still get the support they seek.
  3. Make sure the bot or system can maintain conversational context. Never make your customer repeat themselves.
  4. Use them as a seasoning, not a supplement to your service. Chatbots and IVR aren’t replacements for human service. Use them to help your agents serve customers more efficiently and effectively, not to replace your team.

Cooking up a storm

Both chatbots and IVR are useful tools for cooking up tasty customer service experiences and business benefits. And both can leave you burned – whether it’s a voice call left in the pan too long, or an online support session up in flames.

It’s unlikely that chatbots will replace IVR any time soon. Customers come from all angles, with a variety of needs. So, instead of pitting the frying pan and the fire against each other, why not adopt both, and cook up a great Customer Experience on any channel?


Howard Williams

Howard Williams

Howard Williams works in customer experience at Parker Software. He leads the marketing activities of Parker Software’s global customer team, with a focus on the consumer, their experience, and how it can be continually improved.




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