As businesses compete for customers in an increasingly globalized market, efficient customer service is becoming essential. Interactive voice response, or IVR, systems allow contact centers to automate their customer service, letting callers access information and services without ever speaking to a service rep. IVR systems can lower business costs and increase customer satisfaction, but only if you choose one suited to your business. Nowadays, most call center software providers will include powerful IVR features and systems. If IVR systems are crucial to your inbound call handling and overall business operations, make sure to ask your provider these questions before you buy:

1. Is this an open standards IVR system?
Open standards IVR systems can be connected to a wide range of other software and hardware, making it easier to integrate them into other systems/services that your business already has. This minimizes business cost, makes it easier to respond to customer data, and helps you adapt quickly to technological changes. Never buy an IVR system that is only compatible with a limited range of services, as this will raise your operating costs, reduce your flexibility, and increase your workload.

2. What speech recognition technology does the system use?
Voice-operated IVR systems use speech recognition technology to interpret customers words into meaningful commands. Though generally effective, these systems run the risk of alienating customers who have speech impediments, speak in accents, or for some other reason cannot be properly understood by the program. Make sure that the IVR system you purchase has been designed to interpret a wide range of different pronunciations and tones, and that it politely offers keypad options to customers when it cannot understand them.

3. Which customer inquiries can the IVR handle on its own?
An IVR system is most likely to improve customers’ experience if it saves them time, but it’s not going to do that if you only use it to direct callers to customer service agents. The more your customers are capable of doing through the IVR system itself, the less time they will spend waiting. The nature of your business will determine the type of IVR you need. If you work at a bank, for example, the majority of callers will likely be customers who want to check their account balances. You should thus purchase an IVR system that can authenticate bank customers and access their records.

4. Can I connect the system to other service features?
Every time your business adds a new option for customer service, you risk flooding your customer service network with too many inquiries, but you can minimize this risk if the IVR system you purchase can communicate with other customer service features. Say a customer is making an inquiry via your website but then decides to call customer service. If your IVR is linked to your website, it will determine that the caller is the same customer who was just using the website and immediately provide updates on his or her inquiry. This will minimize the length of the call and associated customer service costs.

5. Can the system keep track of callers?
To get the most out of your IVR system, you have to be able to make regular modifications in order to improve customer experience. You can only make these changes, however, if you use a system that keeps records of callers. The better you keep track of who is calling and what they do during their calls, the easier it is to identify requests that the IVR can’t handle on its own, and modify the system accordingly. Customer data also allows you to personalize the system to appeal to repeat callers, optimizing the experience for your best customers.

6. What is the authentication process like?
If your IVR needs to authenticate customers, it should be able to do this just as quickly as your customer service agents without sacrificing safety. If customer service agents only ask customers for two authenticating questions, the IVR should not ask for four. Otherwise, it will take customers too long to use your IVR system, causing them to choose agents instead.

7. How do customers navigate the system?
Navigating your IVR system should be as simple and intuitive as possible; the last thing you want is to cause customers to waste their time figuring out how to use it. The best IVR systems provide instructions at the beginning of a call, allow customers to select menu options by voice or by keypad, and let customers select options as soon as they hear them. It’s also good to provide consistent default items, such as a key that will return them to the main menu.

8. How does your system layer its menu?
The more sophisticated your IVR system, the more likely it is to confuse callers. To avoid flooding your customers with more information than they need or can remember, layer all the information in the system carefully. When the customer first calls, the primary menu should give them no more than 4 to 5 options; they can then access more options after choosing one of the first five.

9. How well does the system follow up on calls?
The more you rely on an IVR systems, the more it will have to be able to mimic regular customer service agents. If your customers can make appointments via IVR, for example, the system should be capable of reminding them of their appointments, coordinating payment information, and sending out satisfaction surveys. Otherwise, your customer service agents will have to keep track of all the appointments the IVR system makes and perform all of these functions for it, increasing their labor costs and defeating the purpose of installing the system.

10. Can I try it out?
However effective the potential IVR system might look on paper, there’s no way to know how well it will work until you begin using it. To avoid making the wrong choice, ask if you can demo the system in real-time out at your business for a few weeks before purchasing it permanently. During the trial run, pay attention to how customers react to the system, and try making changes to improve those experiences. Only through practical experience can you tell if the IVR system is suited to your particular business.