Visual IVR – Giving Virtual Agents a Run for Their Money

What is Visual IVR (Interactive Voice Response)? Before SpeechTek 2014, I must admit that I’d never heard the term Visual IVR. It turns out that Visual IVR is an important, relatively new technology for providing remote support to customers and supporting other customer interactions. Visual IVR is a far cry from the old, dreaded phone tree (Press 1 for Sales, Press 2 for Something Else You Don’t Want). So how does Visual IVR relate to intelligent assistant (virtual agent) technologies? We’ll get to that in just a minute.

Visual IVRWhile at SpeechTek, I had the opportunity to speak with Steve Herlocher, Chief Marketing Officer of Jacada, a provider of Visual IVR. Herlocher gave me a demonstration of how the Jacada technology works on a smartphone. I tried the demo myself and you can do the same by accessing the Jacada Visual IVR demo from their website. Here’s an example of how the Jacada solution would support a customer who wants to check up on the status of something she recently ordered.

First, the user calls a customer support number. She’s prompted to Press 1 if she’s calling from a smartphone. So far it sounds like the dreaded phone tree, right? But after the user presses 1, she’s transported into a completely different experience, like Alice in Wonderland sliding down the rabbit hole. Instead having to navigate through more frustrating options and finally getting connected to a human, the user immediately receives an SMS message on her phone. When she opens the message and clicks on the link, she’s taken to a website that fits perfectly on her phone screen, regardless of what type of mobile device or operating system she’s using (thanks to HTML5). The user interface prompts her to select from several common functions. She selects the button that says “Check Order Status.” Next, she types in her order number. In a flash, the system looks up her order and shows her the current status and expected delivery date. She can click another link to go straight to the shipper’s website and view all the most recent tracking data.

In the demo that Herlocher showed me, the Visual IVR was engaged with the customer while they were waiting for their support call to connect them with a human agent. During that wait time, the Visual IVR offered the customer various support options. It can also use the hold time to recommend upsells that might interest the customer or to run a quick survey. According to Herlocher, Visual IVR supports other channels, such as social media sties, chat and email.

How does Visual IVR relate to virtual agents? Based on what I saw of the Jacada solution, Visual IVR might very well be a better option for some use cases than a virtual agent. As Herlocher said during our discussion, it’s all about usability. The Jacada demo, where a user needs to confirm her order status and track shipment information, is a great example of a situation that lends itself well to Visual IVR. The user has access to easy-to-follow self-help options right from her phone or tablet. She can quickly get the information she needs, so there’s really no reason to engage in dialog with an agent. The Visual IVR seems like a more direct way to get the customer the help she needs.

On the other hand, I can imagine situations where a combination of intelligent assistant and Visual IVR could work well together. Just last week I reviewed Nuance’s branded personal assistant “Dom” for Domino’s Pizza. While I don’t think Dom and the supporting application can be labeled Visual IVR, the Dom assistant works in tandem with a very rich user interface that streamlines the pizza ordering and check out process. It wasn’t that long ago that executing a complex transaction like ordering a pizza would have been unthinkable from a smartphone. The user experience on smartphones has been transformed by new UI technologies.

If a user hesitates while interacting with a Visual IVR solution, for example, a virtual agent might speak up to ask if the user needs help with the next step. Or a virtual agent might be used to guide the user through each of the Visual IVR screens. For right now, though, I agree with Herlocher that there’s probably no pressing need to force a quick marriage between virtual agent technologies and Visual IVRs. Each has it’s preferred use case. For companies looking for ways to improve both customer support and customer interactions, it makes a lot of sense for them to investigate both technologies before choosing a direction.

3 thoughts on “Visual IVR – Giving Virtual Agents a Run for Their Money

  1. As consumers increasingly use their smartphones and tablets to interact with more efficient, visual forms of self-service than old, very limited IVR applications, the need to simulate live assistants really becomes unnecessary. With new options for flexible access to live assistance (messaging, chat, “virtual queuing for a voice/video connection), the customer has direct control over the self-service apps, as well as getting live assistance the way they want.

    Bottom line is that customers want less wasted time and effort in whatever they do when interacting with business processes, and simulating the time-consuming need for live assistance doesn’t really do that. So, why bother!

    What Jacada has done, is to facilitate the graceful migration from existing telephony IVR applications (which will be around for a while) to more efficient and flexible visual interactions that mobile smartphones can provide. In the new visual mode, self-services can expand tremendously, thereby significantly reducing the need for live assistance completely.

    Also, don’t confuse the use of speech commands as an alternative to typing in text or pushing buttons, as reflecting the use of simulated live assistance. It’s just another facet of more flexible user interfaces that mobile users will need because of their dynamically changing circumstances (driving a car, noisy, public environment, sitting in a meeting, etc.).

    • Art,
      Thanks for you taking the time to post your comment on the Visual IVR story. You make very good points. I agree that as user interface design advances, Visual IVR is becoming a really compelling way for users to serve themselves in a lot of cases. And I agree that for customers, it’s all about getting what they want quickly. With that in mind, your comment makes me realize that it’s important for virtual assistant vendors to steer clear of just simulating interactions with live agents that users don’t want in the first place.

      I still think that there is a role for both live support agents and virtual assistants. I would rather use a Visual IVR to look up information, get a status on something, or perform an action that’s straightforward. I do think there are still lots of times when I want to talk to someone. Some examples are: if I don’t understand why something is happening (could be related to billing, issues with a product or service, etc. ); if I’m trying to get more information prior to committing to a purchase; if I’m carrying out a fairly complex transaction and need some direction. I also think that as virtual assistants improve in their ability to understand and respond to questions, there may come a time when the scales tip away from a preference for quick, text or touch-based self-service interfaces to a preference for speech-based, more personalized interaction with a virtual agent. But I could be wrong! I guess time will tell. It’ll be interesting to see how the space evolves.

      • Yes, time will tell if we can really replace the need for live assistance with a “virtual assistant.” But, do we really need to have a phony image to look at that acts like a human? We can make do with speech input and out put, as well visual output to deak with the interaction, but let’s not pretend we are dealing with humans!

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