We are glued to our smart devices, and we’ve become more accustomed to interacting with them through voice. When was the last time you said, “Hey Alexa,” “Hey Siri,” or “Hey Google…” It was probably pretty recent, right? 

Besides being able to speak to them in a natural and conversational manner, we’ve also come to expect them to understand us with great accuracy and help us navigate the complexities of our day. 

As consumers become used to getting help from their personal virtual agents, they increasingly prefer to have self-service options when contacting a business. The topic of self-service is extremely relevant in the contact center space, due to the increase in usage of artificial intelligence and constant desire to create a more efficient operation. 

There are two options for improved self-service that you should consider: IVA vs. IVR. These are NOT the same. 

IVR, or Interactive Voice Response, is the classic routing technology that many contact centers employ today. While a necessary part of routing customers to the correct agent or providing simple options for self-service, the technology associated with them is unsophisticated and can cause poor customer experience. 

IVAs, or Intelligent Virtual Agents, offer more sophisticated routing and self-service options for customers using natural language processing and artificial intelligence. This aligns with consumer expectations with self-service being able to understand us with great accuracy and engage in a conversational way.  

81% of customers attempt to resolve their issues with self-service before contacting a representative. Who answers the phone for your contact center, whether that be an IVR or IVA, is a critical component to creating a positive customer experience. 

This blog is meant to clarify the difference between IVA vs. IVR, offering the benefits, challenges, and examples of each. With this information, we hope you get a better understanding of what your contact center currently uses and what the best option is for your customers. 

Interactive Voice Response, or IVR

What is Interactive Voice Response?

Interactive Voice Response is an automated phone system technology that allows incoming callers to access information via a voice response system of pre-recorded messages without having to speak to an agent. The incoming caller also has the ability to utilize menu options via touch tone keypad selection or speech recognition to have their calls routed to the proper department. 

If the IVR system cannot retrieve the information that the caller is looking for, the programmed menu options can provide assistance in routing callers to the appropriate representative for help. 

An IVR uses speech recognition to engage with the customer. Speech recognition enables a system to identify and interpret words and phrases in spoken language and convert them into texts by computers. For example, an IVR can ask a customer “How can I help you today?” and is triggered by keywords such as “billing” or “payments” to route them to the correct party.  

The Benefits of Using IVR

  1. Cost savings: IVR systems can handle a high volume of calls simultaneously. 
  2. 24/7 availability: They operate around the clock, allowing customers to access information at any time. 
  3. Reduced wait times: IVRs can quickly route calls to the appropriate department or agent. 
  4. Improved data collection: They collect and record caller data, which can be valuable for analytics and reporting. 
  5. Reduced call abandonment: IVR systems can reduce the number of callers who abandon their calls due to long wait times. 
  6. Improved security: IVR systems can be used to verify caller identities through voice recognition or PINs. 
  7. Streamline administrative processes: They can schedule appointments, send reminders, and manage bookings for self-service options. 

The Challenges of Using IVR

Interactive Voice Response technology was first developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While these systems have evolved significantly over the last 40 years, they still can create challenges for customers trying to engage with a contact center. 

  1. Lengthy, confusing menu: This can lead to a high call abandonment rate. 
  2. Insufficient self-service options 
  3. No clear path to reach a live agent: In some cases, a business won’t clarify how to reach an agent, which causes confusion and frustration for the caller. 
  4. Inability to pass on customer information and context: A customer could be routed multiple times and have to recap their reason for calling each time. 
  5. Faulty speech recognition software: There is a possibility that the IVR will misunderstand the customer’s prompt and route them to the wrong party. 

If you’re struggling with these challenges, check out this infographic. 

Example of an IVR Interaction

If you are unsure if your organization currently uses an IVR system, here’s an example of a customer’s interaction with one in a healthcare provider’s contact center: 

Customer (Patient): calls the healthcare provider’s appointment line 

IVR System: Automated voice prompt “Thank you for calling [Healthcare Provider’s Name]. Please listen carefully as our options have recently changed. If you are calling to schedule a new appointment, press 1. For prescription refills, press 2. To check the status of a recent lab report, press 3. For billing inquiries, press 4. To speak to a representative, press 0. 

Customer: Presses 1 for scheduling a new appointment 

IVR System: Automated voice prompt “Great! To schedule a new appointment, please provide your date of birth followed by the pound sign.” 

Customer: Enters their date of birth and presses # 

IVR System: Automated voice prompt “Thank you. Now, please tell us your preferred appointment date or press 1 for the earliest available appointment.” 

Customer: Speaks their preferred appointment date 

IVR System: Automated voice prompt “Got it. Please confirm the date by saying ‘yes’ or press 1 to re-enter.” 

Customer: Confirms the date 

IVR System: Automated voice prompt “Thank you. Your appointment on [confirmed date] is scheduled for [time]. If this is correct, press 1; otherwise, press 2.” 

Customer: Confirms the appointment by pressing 1 

IVR System: Automated voice prompt “Your appointment is confirmed. We’ll send you a reminder closer to the date. Is there anything else we can assist you with today?” 

Customer: Presses 2 for “No” to end the call 

IVR System: Automated voice prompt “Thank you for choosing [Healthcare Provider’s Name]. Have a great day!” 

This is an example of a best-case scenario when it comes to self-service with an IVR. While an IVR interaction might not always be this flawless, especially if the customer is calling for a more complex issue, an IVR does the job when it comes to simplifying routing and offering some self-service options to the customer. 

Intelligent Virtual Agents, or IVA

What are Intelligent Virtual Agents?

Intelligent Virtual Agents, or Intelligent Voice Assistants, are automated self-service applications that can have natural, conversational interactions with customers. Instead of using a touch tone dial pad to route to an agent or self-serve, IVAs respond with open ended prompts like “How can I help you today?” using natural language processing to determine intent and progress the call accordingly. 

IVAs are configured with basic skills, like answering the phone, asking the caller if they want to maintain their call in the queue, and schedule a callback. Depending on how sophisticated your IVA is and what you need them to do, you can teach them the skills to understand human speech in multiple languages, determine the intent of the caller, process PCI-compliant payments, and respond in multiple languages over the phone, chat, or messaging channels.  

IVAs use natural language processing and machine learning to serve customers. Natural Language Processing, or NLP, is a branch of artificial intelligence that processes and understands human language for the purpose of performing useful tasks. This makes the user experience more conversational while enabling you to automate tasks that were previously too cumbersome to be handled using only speech recognition in an IVR. 

In a way, it simplifies speech recognition processes to make them less time consuming and more accurate. IVAs also use machine learning (ML) to gain knowledge over time and become more apt to serve customers as their needs change. 

The Benefits of Using IVA

  1. Improved accessibility: IVAs can be deployed across multiple channels, including websites, mobile apps, social media, and voice systems. 
  2. Increase automation rates: They excel at automating routine and repetitive tasks, freeing up human agents to focus on more complex and high-value activities. 
  3. Reduce service costs: IVAs can handle multiple interactions simultaneously, reducing the need for human agents in routine and repetitive tasks. 
  4. Improved first-call resolution: By quickly addressing customer inquiries and issues, IVAs can increase the likelihood of resolving problems on the first interaction, improving customer satisfaction. 
  5. 24/7 availability: They operate around the clock, allowing customers to access information at any time. 
  6. Maintain context when routing callers to agents: An IVA will provide the agent with customer context, so the customer doesn’t have to repeat why they’re calling. 
  7. Increase routing accuracy: IVAs eliminate the need for lengthy directed dialog menus by using natural language processing to understand caller intent. 
  8. Pay per virtual agent: Scale on demand for unforeseen peaks. 
  9. Quick deployment: Intelligent Virtual Agents can be deployed in a matter of days or weeks, using drag-and-drop components or pre-built templates. 

The Challenges of Using IVA

Intelligent Virtual Agents are a new and exciting use of artificial intelligence designed to make the customer and agent experience better. Adding onto the speech recognition that is at the core of IVR systems, IVAs use natural language processing and machine learning to improve their skillset and service to the customer over time. 

There are still some challenges to consider when employing IVAs in your contact center. 

  1. Limited contextual understanding: While IVAs have made significant advancements in NLP, they may still struggle with understanding complex or context-dependent queries. 
  2. Managing customer expectations: Users’ expectations for IVAs are often influenced by their experiences with human agents. Managing these expectations and ensuring users understand the capabilities and limitations of the IVA is crucial. 
  3. Continuous improvement: IVAs require ongoing monitoring and refinement. Regularly updating and improving the IVA’s responses, capabilities, and performance is essential to keep it effective and relevant. 
  4. Integration challenges: Integrating an IVA with other systems, such as CRM, databases, and legacy systems, can be technically challenging. Ensuring seamless data flow and real-time updates between systems is essential for providing accurate information and services. 
  5. Initial Setup and Training: Training an IVA to understand the specific nuances of an organization’s industry, products, and services can be time-consuming and resource intensive. Achieving a high level of accuracy and effectiveness may require significant effort. 

Even with these challenges, if your goal is to improve the customer and agent experience and find ways to integrate artificial intelligence into your everyday contact center operations, Intelligent Virtual Agents are worth the investment. 

Example of an IVA Interaction

If you are unsure if your organization currently uses an IVA, here’s an example of a customer’s interaction with one in a healthcare provider’s contact center: 

Customer (Patient): Calls the healthcare provider to check on a recent lab report. 

IVA: Answers “Hello! How can I assist you today?” 

Customer: “I want to check the results of my recent lab test.” 

IVA: “Of course, I can help with that. Can you please provide your full name and date of birth for verification?” 

Customer: Provides the information. 

IVA: “Thank you, [Customer’s Name]. Let me find your lab results.” Accesses the patient’s record and retrieves the lab results. “I’ve located your recent lab report. You had a blood test done last week. Would you like to know the results?” 

Customer: “Yes, please.” 

IVA: “Here are your lab results: Hemoglobin: 14.5 g/dL (Reference Range: 12.0 – 16.0 g/dL), Cholesterol: 180 mg/dL (Reference Range: < 200 mg/dL), Glucose: 95 mg/dL (Reference Range: 70 – 100 mg/dL), White Blood Cell Count: 6.2 x 10^9/L (Reference Range: 4.0 – 11.0 x 10^9/L)… Would you like me to send this report to your email on file?” 

Customer: “Yes, please.” 

IVA: Emails the lab results, including values and reference ranges. “I emailed you the report. Is there anything specific you would like to know or discuss regarding these results?” 

Customer: “What does the cholesterol level mean, and should I be concerned?” 

IVA: “Your cholesterol level of 180 mg/dL falls within the normal range, which is less than 200 mg/dL. This is generally considered a healthy level. However, it’s always a good idea to discuss your results and any concerns with your healthcare provider during your next visit. Is there anything else I can assist you with?” 

Customer: “No, thank you. That was very helpful.” 

IVA: “You’re welcome, [Customer’s Name]. If you have any more questions in the future, feel free to reach out. Have a great day!” 

If you didn’t read the first half of this blog post and read through this interaction, you might think that the customer is talking to a human agent. This is where Intelligent Virtual Agents set themselves apart from traditional IVR systems.  

Instead of pressing the #3 key to talk to an agent about lab results, this customer can self-serve in a natural, conversational way. If you would like to listen to an IVA interaction, click here. 

What’s the Difference between IVA vs. IVR?

Whether an IVA or IVR answers your incoming customer calls for your contact center, it sets the tone for the entire customer experience. 56% of customers admit they’ll discontinue business with a company after a frustrating experience with customer support. 

As consumer expectations are increasing, it’s necessary to consider ways to elevate your technology to provide more effective and efficient means of answering the inquiry they called about. Artificial intelligence seems to be the most common way to do so. 

An Interactive Voice Response system is a simplified means of routing calls and providing limited self-service options to your customers. Intelligent Virtual Agents will interact with a customer in a natural, conversational manner and employ a skillset that allows them to go far beyond simple self-service tasks like appointment scheduling. 

Now that you understand the differences between IVA vs. IVR, consider the current state of your contact center and the top issues you’re facing. If they involve low call containment, high abandon rate, and an increasing demand for self-service, exchanging your IVR for IVA might make the most sense.  

If you are looking for further proof on why it makes sense to upgrade to IVA, download our eBook, The Future is Calling: Why It’s Time to Upgrade Your IVR to an IVA. 

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