Automated Phone Surveys

Surveys can be conducted using many different technologies. Phone surveys, mail surveys and web surveys are the best known means. A more recent addition to this list is IVR surveys, also known as automated phone surveys. IVR stands for “Interactive Voice Response.” When you call a company for service, your phone call — and all those annoying phone menus — is managed with an IVR, and IVR technology provides the capability to conduct surveys. In this article I will examine the strengths and weaknesses of the IVR survey approach, and I will use a recent experience with a Sears IVR to measure customer satisfaction to illustrate some points.

What is an IVR survey?

An IVR survey shares many characteristics with a telephone survey since the survey is conducted over the telephone.  But rather than have a live interviewer conduct the survey, the survey is delivered using a prerecorded script. The respondent is asked to enter his responses using the keypad of the telephone and by verbalizing free-form comments. (IVR survey programs can even analyze the tone of the responses.) Since there’s no interviewer to clarify questions, the script must be clean and anticipate all the possible responses someone being surveyed may have.

IVR surveys are most commonly used to measure a customer’s reactions to service just delivered through a call center environment, known as a transactional survey. You may have had this experience. When you call some company before being connected to an agent, you may be asked if you would be willing to take a short survey at the end of the call. When the service is complete and the agent disconnects from the caller, the caller is automatically transferred into the survey program. It’s important that the agent not know who is going to be surveyed to keep the measurements clean.

IVR surveys need not be limited to this situation. You could invite a respondent group to take an IVR survey by calling them or by emailing them with a toll free number to call to take a survey.

My recent experience with a Sears IVR survey shows the IVR method’s strengths and weaknesses.

What are the Strengths of the IVR Survey Method?

Speed of Survey Data Collection. The most striking advantage of the IVR survey method is how quickly a company can collect feedback from an individual. Within 5 minutes after a service interaction is finished, the company can get feedback from the customer about her experiences. No faster means of collecting feedback exists.

Service Recovery Flag. That completed survey from the respondent gets analyzed immediately by the IVR survey program. Management can establish criteria to flag a specific survey response for review. For example, if someone provides a very low rating for overall service quality, information about that service transaction and the subsequent survey can be forwarded to a designated manager. The customer could get a call immediately to address the issue. The immediacy helps ensure that the customer is by the phone to take the call.

Lower Survey Response Bias. Response bias results from a respondent’s predispositions when they enter into a surveying routine. Common ones are acquiescence where the respondent gives the answer he feels the surveyor wants and auspices where the respondent gives an answer to please the interviewer. Since the respondent is interacting with a machine, the likelihood of any response bias is much reduced. We may not understand the script, but few of us will be intimidated by the process. However, the flip side may prove true should a low score result in an immediate follow-up phone call by a designated manager. That call could prove intimidating to some — and make them leery to take future IVR surveys.

Lower Cost for Larger Survey Programs. IVR surveys have a cost model that has a high fixed cost, but lower variable cost. The script must be developed and recorded, which can be costly. But the cost to deliver each individual survey is relatively small.

What are the Weaknesses of the IVR Survey Method?

Lack of Anonymity. Like a telephone survey, no anonymity exists. We may feel confident that our responses will be treated confidentially, but heck, they have our phone number. (If you call them on a toll free number, they get your phone number, even if you block caller ID.) They know who we are. Thus, any survey research purpose that relies heavily on anonymity, such as an employee survey, is best done through some other method.

Keep it Very Simple. Again, like telephone surveys, the questionnaire or script must be kept simple. Complex survey questions that can need to be administered with the visual aid of a printed page or web page cannot use an IVR survey approach. For the most part, IVR survey designers are limited to interval-rating scale questions, that is, questions that ask for a response on a 1-to-5 scale or something similar. (The much touted Net Promoter Score® survey method cannot be done by IVR since it uses an 11-point, 0-to-10 scale.) Check list (or categorical) questions are difficult to administer since all the options must be read to the respondent.

Narrow Scope. When an IVR survey is conducted as a transactional survey at the end of an interaction with a contact center, e.g., a phone call, the only things that can really be evaluated in the survey is what happened during the immediate interaction. Yet, that interaction is likely one part of a broader transaction, which is composed of a series of interactions.

In the case of the Sears customer survey, they used the IVR survey not at the end of my call with their 800-4MyHome call center, rather they used it to measure my feelings about the technician’s visit to my home. This shows that the IVR survey method can be used to measure the broader transaction, although Sears through the stupidity of its functional silos, chose to measure just the transaction involving the technician.

Telephone Turn-off. Some people just dislike telephone interaction, including telephone surveys. We can thank telemarketers, especially those who use surveys as a pretense for a sales call. Some people also don’t like interacting with a machine. And those of us who have grown to hate IVR phone trees — and I count myself fully in that group — may also hate anything that involves an IVR.

In summary, IVR surveys can be a very useful tool to get very quick feedback for transactional surveys, and they are flexible enough to be used in other situations.  However, care must be taken in the survey questionnaire design, which the Sears IVR survey definitely did not do.