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Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Systems

Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems are a form of voice controlled telephony extension navigation, most often used to prevent customers from reaching actual people and to annoy them.

In a traditional telephone based menuing system, a recorded or computer generated voice recites a menu, such as: "Press 1 for billing, Press 2 for sales, Press 3 for support." and then the caller press the associated button.

An Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system instead responds to voice commands spoken by the caller. The theory is this gives greater flexibility to the caller, but in practice can be confusing and intimidating. They work a little bit like "voice home assistants", in that they can interpret a wide variety of speech and produce simplistic human-like responses. In the case of an IVR, it can also direct a call to a person or execute automated functions such as listing the caller's billing statement.

An IVR system can be configured in a friendly manner, such as listing options like "Press 1 for billing, or say 'billing'" or explaining what kinds of input it needs. However, in practice, many are not. An example of interaction with such a system might look like this:

"Hi! How may I help you?"

"What? You tell me."

"I'm, sorry, I don't understand that request."

"I need to talk to a person."

"Please tell me a little more about how I may help you."

"I'm not talking to a TOASTER, let met talk to a PERSON!".

"I am transferring you to our Happy Fun Customer Care Team. Because you yelled, you will be placed on artificial hold for 30 minutes."
[fake chugging noises]

"I'm sorry our office is currently closed. Please call back during office hours. Because we are assholes, we won't tell you what our hours are." [Click]

So let's take a look at what went wrong here. The system was not configured to provide any idea of what kind of input it needed. Did it need terse commands like "list options" or "sales"? Did it need explicit commands like "connect extension sales"? What terminology did it expect? Did it expect "sales", "business activities unit", "customer account representative", "mud"?

Perhaps the intent was to tell it about your problem like a person? The problem here is it is NOT a person and it is NOT actually capable of understanding what you say, only guessing based on a large database.

"Oh, I"

"How does My computer is constantly rebooting! make you feel?"

"At the end of this call their will be cake and grief counseling."

"Would you like some toast?"

If we compare the traditional telephony menu systems and Interactive Voice Response systems to computer desktop user interfaces, the traditional menu system might look like this:

Friendly Menu
This is a straightforward and friendly way of presenting the options.

The IVS system then might look like this:

Command Prompt

As much as I like command line interfaces, the last time I checked it seemed only a handful of Linux geeks trying to increase their job security actually liked command prompts. So why are these interactive voice response systems suddenly so popular?

Answer: because companies HATE you. And you are expected just to take it up the butt, never complain about that, and keep giving them your money. Why, you should consider yourself lucky that you even have a number to call in the first place! Increasingly companies these days don't even have that.

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