Get Vocal about Self-Service

The world has lost patience with poorly designed self-service solutions. But you need automation to handle growing call volumes and to provide 24-hour access to information and services.

Self-service solutions as part of an interactive voice response (IVR) system can simplify basic services for both your customers and your business. Automated ordering, electronic payment, status reporting, password management, changes of address, and catalog requests are among the most common uses of self-service solutions. When used in conjunction with live agents, these solutions reduce hold times, help balance call loads, and reserve agents for callers who need extra attention.

More and more of these self-service solutions include a voice user interface (VUI): Callers verbally respond to a series of prerecorded requests, and the speech-recognition technology directs them as appropriate, eliminating the “push 1 for X, push 2 for Y” type of directives. Adding speech can improve self-service solutions by heightening caller satisfaction, increasing automation rates, and lowering overall call time — if the VUI is designed correctly.


The first step in designing a great VUI is conducting a complete review of business processes and customer interactions. Be sure that you are addressing as many of your specific customer requirements as possible. It is important to design the interface based on the activities of your customers; if you automate things that they don’t generally call about, it makes the entire process longer, and a delay of even a few seconds can be extremely frustrating to customers.

Your analysis will also help to determine the type of speech technology you need. Directed-dialogue solutions, in which callers are expected to answer from a limited set of responses — “Would you like to be connected to sales or to customer service?” — require less grammar development and yield higher recognition rates. But the detailed prompting required for robust customer service solutions can lead to confusing, unnatural, and wordy prerecorded questions.

The alternative is a natural-language “say anything” approach — “How can I help you today?” This provides callers with a more natural interface and streamlined menus for faster navigation. On the downside, a natural-language solution costs about 20% more than a directed-dialogue solution. (Speech solution costs overall vary widely depending on the size of the system and the complexity of the application.)

Natural-language solutions require longer development cycles than directed-dialogue solutions, because they need expert user-interface design skills, significant up-front tuning, and additional testing time. And even with a natural-language interface, you must be able to accurately predict what callers will say, as well as build in error-handling scenarios that can refine an unknown response. If you don’t, your VUI could create more problems than it solves.

For most organizations, speech solutions permitting natural-language responses within a directed-dialogue framework yield optimal results. Here, developers carefully define the context and purpose of the dialogue as precisely as possible so that the number of possible matches is restricted and effective accuracy is maintained.


Once you have determined your overall speech strategy, these tips can help you create a VUI that will please callers and maximize automation rates:

  • Speak in a common language

    Your customers don’t always understand your jargon, including the names of products or services created by well-meaning marketing folks. Save the abbreviations, acronyms, and nicknames for company memos, and speak plainly to your customers.

  • Make it quick and easy

    Don’t bombard your novice customers with too many options; you’ll just confuse them. But don’t ignore your experienced customers either. Allow for “barge in” capabilities so that frequent callers can bypass directions and prompts they don’t need.

  • Treat callers with respect

    You’ll be amazed by the difference that a pleasant, trained voice and the occasional “please” and “thank you” will make in the caller’s willingness to use an automated system.

  • Use silence

    Well-timed pauses — even of just one or two seconds — help novice and experienced users alike navigate your system more effectively.

  • Take errors seriously

    Do not insult callers with “invalid input” responses. That might make sense to your IT department, but it won’t to your customers. Be positive and say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that…” Leverage “n best” data, which provide a list of probable recognition matches, to offer possible responses to increase recognition such as “Did you mean size 11?”

  • Extend your branding when choosing your solution’s “persona.”

    A great experience with your VUI will reinforce your brand and build customer loyalty. Select a voice talent, or persona, that will project the image and style you want — male vs. female, old vs. young, happy vs. serious. But don’t mix voices as callers move from one application to another; carry the same voice throughout.

  • Consider offering multiple languages

    This will allow your system to serve your entire customer base.

As you might expect, robust testing is critical to getting the exact VUI your customers will love. If you are designing a complex solution that requires many customer interactions, you may want to test nuances in your design prior to investing in development work.

Be prepared to continually tune your solution, over time and to seasonal variations, to ensure the best results. Make sure you have a flexible solution — and relationship with your vendor — that will enable your system to adapt to market and business changes.

Christoph Mosing is vice president of professional services for Envox Worldwide, a Westborough, MA-based provider of voice solutions.

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