December 5, 2005

Bail Your Customers out of Voice Application Jail

James A. Larson, Intel Corporation, and Ahmed Bouzid,

Containment May Make Customers Angry
Some IVR administrators enforce a policy referred to as caller containment making it difficult or prohibiting callers from transferring to a live agent.  They believe forcing callers to remain in an IVR system decreases the number of calls to human agents and minimizes the amount of time of human agent interaction. 


Not only does containment impact customer satisfaction negatively, causing customers to avoid returning to the company and its IVR system, but callers spend valuable minutes venting their displeasure to human agents.   [“Ten Criteria for Measuring Effective Voice User Interfaces,” Speech Technology Magazine, November/December 2005.  Available at]

Containment May Be Counter Productive
Based on data from 60 studies conducted by Vocal Laboratories, Inc., difficulty reaching an agent accounted for 61 percent of the variance in caller satisfaction levels and 49 percent in first-call resolution rates. [Leppik, Peter, 2005.  “Does Forcing Callers to Use Self-service Work?”] 

Companies that make it difficult to reach a human see a much lower first-call completion rates and more repeat calls as well as frustrated callers. While a high containment rate is desirable, this goal should not prohibit callers with complex and difficult requests from connecting to a human agent.

Beginning of a Customer Revolt?
Tired of wasting time trying to connect to a live agent, Paul English, chief technical officer and co-founder of, created a Web site explaining how to quickly abandon the IVR systems of hundreds of major U.S. companies and connect directly to live agents.  His site has received over a million hits.  On November 23, English was interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition.  [To hear the interview, click ] Many of today’s live agents may face a flood of callers who can now opt out of their IVR systems. And these callers may become more frustrated as they are forced to wait in longer telephone queues before they can talk to the live agents. 
Could this be the first wave of a consumer revolt?  We hope not, but IVR managers should prepare for changes in caller abandonment rates by following these suggestions to minimize the problem surfaced by English’s “IVR cheat sheet.” 

Designing Your IVR with Customer Satisfaction in Mind
Make it easier for callers to connect to a live agent by changing your IVR to do the following:

  1. Do not hide the option for callers to speak with a live agent. No matter how useful your IVR system is for customers, there will always be times when customers want and need to speak to a live agent to resolve their issue. Enable the user to quickly and easily transfer to a live agent when the user believes it is necessary. 
  2. Let callers know what to expect from the system immediately. This is a simple rule that applies to any customer experience. Present a pleasant greeting and explain succinctly what the system can and will do for the caller. If the caller feels that the automatic system can not help, let the caller connect to a live agent.
  3. Whenever possible, give the caller an approximate time that the caller must wait to speak with a live agent. If transferring to a live agent, let the caller know the expected hold time and provide options to go back into the IVR system.
  4. Do not make callers repeat information collected in the IVR to the live agent to whom they are transferred. If you want callers to believe that the IVR can help them resolve a problem, respect the time they put into the IVR and don't ask for the same answers twice.
  5. Improve your IVR system so that callers will not feel that they must speak with a live agent. When users learn that they can achieve their goal with an automated system in less time than they must wait for a live agent, they will naturally choose the automated system over waiting. has created a “cheat sheet for businesses”] that offers 10 guidelines for improving IVR systems to minimize the need for callers to connect directly with live agents. 

Containment is not the goal of automated customer support, but a result of good customer support.  Discouraging callers from connecting to live agents by hiding the IVR exit commands is counter productive.  Enabling callers to connect to live agents when the IVR is not helping the caller is a superior strategy.  

Related articles:
“Sick of Automation? Dial 0 for Human”

Paul English discovers the secrets to getting a real, live human on a help line, People Magazine, December 5, 2006.

Ahmed Bouzid is’s enterprise solutions manager and the author of’s monthly VUI View.  He can be reached at  His writings on VUI best practices can be found at:

James A. Larson is manager of advanced human input/output at Intel Corporation, and author of "The VoiceXML Guide.”  He can be reached at and his Web site is