Column: Live Agent or Automated Agent?

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The emergence of automated agents or IVR (interactive voice recognition) systems as an alternative to live agent applications can pose a dilemma for direct response marketers and customer service providers when deciding on an inbound call center.

Both applications have advantages and disadvantages, in terms of conversions and cost.

One key factor in determining whether to use an IVR system is if the core demographic of your media, be it TV, print, radio or direct mail, will be comfortable with an automated voice recording personal details such as their home address and credit card number. Will customers find it difficult to not have the ability to transfer out to a live agent in the event they had a question not covered in the programmed script?

If core demographic is age 50-plus, they most likely will expect a live person on the phone and at the very least a live agent zero-out option. Otherwise you stand to lose orders and end up with wasted media dollars.

If the price point is higher than $99.99 for the base offer plus upsells, or if the product requires extensive explanation, for example, with a nutriceutical offer where callers generally have questions regarding possible side effects, an automated voice might simply not project enough confidence in the caller to go ahead and place an order.

If you have a continuity program that has to be successful in order to make you a profit as all your costs are only being covered by that first month's order, then a live agent center works best.

The DR market is seeing more soft and trial DR offers where the customer calling does not know the price or is calling to place a free trial order. With these types of offers, scripting comes second to personal, one-on-one conversations designed to gain the callers confidence. You need live, specially trained inbound agents to close the deal, as the calls can be 10 minutes-plus, with third-party upsells .

For customer service inbound or outbound campaigns you should always go with a live agent component because when your customers are calling with a complaint, they are steamed to start with, and become even more irritated when they have to go through multiple voice or key pad prompts before possibly getting to a live person to deal with their issue.

However, an IVR system offers cost savings if used for the right kinds of applications.

Generally, these are when the offer is below $99.99, including upsells, and the core customer is accepting of the technology. IVR is ideally situated for a national rollout after a test period has ironed out any wrinkles in the campaign, where thousands and thousands of calls are projected daily and the price and offer is straight forward.

For example, take a kitchen gadget where the base offer is priced between $19.99 and $49.99. The first upsell is for another unit at a discount, the second upsell is for an accessory to the base unit, the third upsell is rush shipping and the final upsell, a club membership.

In these situations, IVR systems actually do better than live agents with upsells and cross sells for one reason - the offers are always read. The marketer has the ability to record exactly what the upsell should say and what tone of voice is used so it is the same each and every time. You simply cannot have that kind of control in a live agent call center.

Another IVR advantage is that busy signals and abandoned calls almost never occur and that is a huge plus if you your product really takes off - as long as it is a good fit for IVR to begin with in terms of offer pricing and customer demographics.

Michael Moreau is the director of sales and business development at Integrated Messaging Inc., an inbound order entry and customer service call center. He is also a co-chair of the Electronic Retailing Association's member committee for new member acquisition. Reach him at mmoreau@imi.mb.ca.

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