IVR

What Is An IVR System?

IVR stands for Interactive Voice Response, a technology that automates routine customer service interactions by allowing callers to interact using touch tone digits or their voice.  A basic example of an IVR application is an automated attendant or voice menu: callers are presented with a recorded menu and respond by selecting a digit or, in some cases, by entering an extension number. The automated attendant eliminates the need for a live operator to handle the call.

More complex applications include perscription refill for pharmacies, password reset, voice surveys, account balance inquiries, flight status checks, package tracking, pre-sales qualification questionnaires, etc. The key idea is to automate a routine, repetitive task that would otherwise require the time and effort of an employee. The savings potential gives IVR solutions a very rapid return on investment (ROI), as on server can potentially eliminate multiple live agents.

IVR systems are historically sold at a premium, to large degree because of the strong ROI. A system with four ports (and thus capable of processing four concurrent calls) could cost thousands of dollars.  Like conference bridging, voice messaging and other communications applications, IVR is generally an add-on component for a traditional phone system.

Key Facts & Features

All IVR systems are capable of prompting (playing audio) and collecting digits from the caller.  Replacing the touch-tone interface with a voice interface requires additional software and significantly increases the expense of the platform.

IVR platforms usually provide a means for recording audio from the caller.  This can be used to record prompts, but the quality is generally quite poor.  Most systems will also accept pre-recorded audio, and there are professional voice talents that offer custom prompts.

IVR applications frequently interact with other data systems. This is often done using direct access to relational database systems through technologies like ODBC or by using making web service calls using protocols like REST or SOAP.

Many IVR systems are sold as a runtime platform, meaning that business applications will need to be purchased or custom built.  Frequently the service creation environment is an additional charge.

Traditional IVR systems interface with the PSTN or a PBX system using either analog or digital trunks.  More recent IVR systems support connections over IP using SIP.  Legacy platforms tend to license by the port, while IP systems license by the concurrent call.

IVR systems can be connected directly to the PSTN or they can be integrated with a business phone system. Systems that are directly connected to the PSTN support "terminal" applications -- applications that never require redirecting the caller to a live agent.  Integrated IVR systems, on the other hand, can route calls to other resources within a business or even outside of it.

Key Benefits

The primary benefit of IVR is the savings compared to hiring staff to handle boring and repetitive tasks.  Automating basic customer service functions makes sense in situations where the task is relatively simple and the input and output values can be conveyed by phone.

Another benefit is the unlimited hours that an IVR system can put in each day. With a properly configured IVR system your company can offer top notch customer service even when closed for the evening or weekend.

IVR systems can easily support multiple languages, allowing your business to service international markets abroad and multi-lingual customers at home.

Asterisk As An IVR

Asterisk includes a wealth of functions that make it a powerful IVR platform: audio playback and recording, digit collection, database and web service access, calendar integration, and optional speech recognition and synthesis.  IVR applications can be build using the Dialplan language or through the Asterisk Gateway Interface and can integrate with virtually any external system.

Asterisk has a number of advantages over proprietary IVR systems, first among them being price.  The Asterisk software is free, and there are no per-port or per-concurrent-call license fees.  Since Asterisk runs on commodity hardware and uses low-cost PSTN interface hardware, deploying an Asterisk system is significantly less expensive. Another Asterisk benefit is the open nature of the platform.  With proprietary systems, only the vendor can add or change the base functionality.  With Asterisk, the source code is available and can be modified as needed to fit specific requirements.

As with any Asterisk application, your options are to build or to buy.  Building an IVR system using Asterisk requires the usual skills: Linux, script development and telephony.  Asterisk: The Definitive Guide includes a number of chapters on building IVR solutions.  

For those who wish to buy pre-packaged solutions based on Asterisk, there are several options including Digum's Switchvox, which includes an integrated IVR editor.  Asterisk IVR solutions are also can be found on the AsteriskExchange.