A call center IVR is a software that automatically routes callers to the right place based on the things they say or the buttons they push. You’ve almost certainly interacted with one of these if you’ve ever been on a call where you had to press 1 for English and 2 for Spanish––they’re incredibly common, and can be very useful when managed effectively.

The problem is, most customers hate call center IVRs, and with good reason. Poorly designed IVRs can be a test of a customer’s patience and temper, making them have to sit through endless menu options, routing them through circular menu loops, and dropping the call right when they’re about to get to where they need to be.

Why Call Center IVRs are a Necessary Evil

Although IVRs can be frustrating to customers, most companies don’t have the budget to hire enough human agents to answer every single call right away.

Thus, instead of paying a bunch of agents to sit around doing nothing when the call volumes aren’t at peak levels, most companies use call center IVRs to help manage the flow of calls by answering common questions and routing callers to the right departments and representatives.

The trick is to implement your call center IVR thoughtfully and intentionally so that it works in support of your call center staff rather than a robotic replacement for the staff you don’t want or can’t afford to hire. At the end of the day, it’s all about implementing just enough to keep your call volume under control without going overboard and neglecting your clients.

It’s a delicate balance, but it’s certainly doable. When done right, you’ll ease pressure on your call center staff, lower your call center budget, and have a bunch of happy customers. That’s a win-win-win!

The Ideal Call Center IVR

Every call center is going to need a slightly different IVR system, but there are some general best practices that hold true across most call center IVRs.

Limit menus to two levels

We’ve all sat through the endless tree of IVR navigation where you have to press what feels like 100 buttons before you can finally get through to a real person. Don’t put your customers through that hassle because they’ll either hang up or become so frustrated that, by the time they actually get through to a representative, they’ll come into the interaction upset.

Instead, keep your menus short and be mindful of what information you truly need from people before you can route them to the right department or representative.

Similarly, don’t make your customers do a ton of work by essentially filling out a survey before they can get anywhere. Ask them a few simple things like their preferred language, the department they wish to reach, and the nature of their issue––then get them on the phone with a representative.

Use pre-recorded messages sparingly

No one wants to sit through a bunch of pre-recorded messages. They’re usually too time-consuming and obvious, and they may feel dismissive on behalf of the company. Instead, only use pre-recorded messages for very basic inquiries, such as your store’s location or closing hours. For anything else that would be tedious to sit through unnecessarily, just route them through to a representative.

This also applies to the initial message people hear when they encounter your IVR. Don’t make people listen to a message about updated policies or how your menu has changed, the point of your IVR is to sort and route, not to educate. You want to create as little friction as possible for customers as they move through their encounter with the IVR.

Keep your menu simple

If a 5-year-old cannot call your company and navigate your menu with ease, you’re probably doing something wrong. Customers want to solve their problems as quickly as possible with as little thought as possible, so don’t make them solve a riddle to decipher your menu.

Instead, make sure that you’ve thought out the items that truly need to be on the menu, cut anything that doesn’t need to be there, and avoid ambiguous overlap between items. It’s also important to label each menu option clearly. People should have a clear sense of exactly what’s going to happen when they press a button or verbally choose an option. If they don’t immediately grasp what’s going on, they’ll most likely become frustrated or hang up.

Allow voice responses, two-tone responses, and barge-ins

Customers should be able to interact with your IVR in whatever way works for them, so make sure that your IVR is set up to allow voice responses, button responses, and even two-tone responses. You never know when someone might be trying to take a customer service call in a place where they can’t talk immediately or when someone is driving and needs to be able to just talk to the phone rather than push buttons.

Also, do your customers the courtesy of letting them make mid-menu selections. For instance, if they want to press “three” to speak to sales, don’t make them wait until the system reads all of the nine options before they can choose one. Most IVR systems allow this ability to interrupt the menu with what is called a barge-in, but it needs to be configured ahead of time. Either way, you need to ensure that your IVR is designed to work for your customers, not against them.

Always offer an operator

Sometimes an IVR just won’t cut it and a person needs to speak to a real human. Always allow callers that option by letting them route themselves to an operator. Once they’re on the phone with the operator, they can explain their issue in more detail and get the help they need without having to press buttons at random and hope they stumble upon the right menu option.

Having an always-on operator option acts as a release valve for frustrated customers, letting them skip the menu entirely and work with a human to get routed to the right department or representative. For repeat callers, this can be a lifesaver.

Finally, make sure that you set up your IVR so that if a customer hits one or a series of wrong buttons, they’ll be redirected to your operator rather than getting hung up on. For instance, if your menu only has five options but a customer presses the “eight” key, you don’t want your system to hang up on them—chances are they were aiming for the “five” and simply sausage-fingered it (or they just weren’t sure what menu option to choose).

Test, test, test

Too many businesses set up their IVRs and never look at them again—but this is a huge mistake. Your IVR should act as a living organism that evolves as you learn more about how your customers use it. At the same time, it may also become stale as your business grows and changes.

Be sure to gather data about how your customers interact with your IVR, review failed calls and hangups, and have your call center representatives ask callers about the IVR so you can get a sense of whether it’s working or not. If possible, you can even set up a survey for customers to opt into after the call.

At the end of the day, the more you know about your own system’s performance, the more you can refine it, and the happier your customers—and representatives—will be.

Avoid conversational IVR entirely

Conversational IVR is a newer kind of system where customers talk to the IVR like it’s a person, and the IVR responds as though it were a customer service representative.

While this may end up being a useful feature in the future, most present-day conversational IVRs can be a nightmare to work with—everyone answers them differently and the systems are often unable to handle customer inputs well enough to make them worth the hassle. Until they remove friction instead of adding more of it, it’s probably best to steer clear of adding conversational IVR to your setup.