Welcome once again to our series on teachable moments.

A lot of people say they hate IVRs, but we think they really just hate bad IVRs. Occasionally (OK, frequently) we run into bad IVRs, too. Since IVR is what we do, we try to help.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I’m calling a business contact named Matt Smith*. I call the 800 number for his company, and I hear the IVR menu:

“Hello, welcome to Acme Company. This call may be recorded for quality assurance. Para espanol, oprima ocho. You can press # at any time to hear the menu again. If you know the four-digit extension of the person you’re trying to reach dial it now.”

Problem 1: I don’t know Matt’s extension. The message continues, though, so I keep listening, hoping for some way to find what I need:

“For customer service, press 1. For billing, press 2. For international orders, press 3. For upcoming events, press 4.”

Problem 2: There’s no Employee Directory listed. And I don’t know which of the listed options will get me to Matt in Marketing.

Figuring that my years of designing and testing IVRs will help me, I press 0 – which had no assignment in the main menu – expecting to route to an operator.

Instead, I hear a secondary menu that says, among other things, to press 7 for the Employee Directory. Hey, now we’re getting somewhere! I press 7.

The Employee Directory menu asks me to spell the first name of who I’m trying to reach followed by the star key. I think, “First name? Odd…”, but I comply with the system and enter MATT* (6288).

The system responds:

“For extension 5678** press 1. For extension 2345, press 2.”

Problem 3: Is 5678 Matt Smith’s extension? Is 2345? I don’t know!

Gambling has gotten me this far, so I decide to press my luck: I press 1 and hear a text-to-speech prompt:

“You have reached mailbox 5-6-7-8.”

Problem 4: I’ve reached the end of the line, but I still don’t know if I’m in the right place.

I decide to try again. (I work with IVRs all the time! I should be able to figure this out!) I call back and press 0 at the main menu again, then press 7 for the Employee Directory. I know that I’ll only get unclear information if I enter the name as the prompt requests, but pressing 0 got me somewhere before, so I decide to try that again.

I press 0 again, and this time I’m transferred to an operator. I ask for Matt Smith in Marketing, and the nice young lady transfers me. Matt apparently isn’t available, though, because I’m sent to his voicemail:

“Hi, you’ve reached Matt’s voicemail, please leave a message at the beep…”

I wait through the obligatory instructions and then leave my message. But now I wonder where my first attempted landed me.

The teachable moments in this interaction are numerous, but I’ll give you the big ones:

  • The Employee Directory should have been available on the first menu, not in a hidden second menu (especially when there were options still available on the main menu).
  • There should always be a global, designated key that connects directly to an operator or agent, and this option should work in any menu.
  • In a search, such as the Employee Directory, give users meaningful choices: “For Matt Smith, press 1” vs. “For extension 5678, press 1”. (And while we’re on the subject of searching – be sure your search criteria will return a narrow range of answers.
  • First names are usually fairly common [especially one like Matt], while last names tend to be more unique. Know your information!) Test your own system!! Just a simple test revealed some extreme pain points in this system. If you can’t use your own IVR, your customers can’t, either!

*Not his real name.
**Possibly his real extension, I have no idea.