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Grow Your Business Technology

How to Design an IVR Phone System That Doesn't Annoy Your Customers

How to Design an IVR Phone System That Doesn't Annoy Your Customers
It is important businesses design IVR systems that don't frustrate callers / Credit: Automated PhoFrustrated Caller image via Shutterstock

Although it may be advisable for business owners to find ways to improve their productivity and make their lives easier, doing so at their customers' expense is a risky proposition.

One way some businesses are leaving customers frustrated is by using interactive voice response (IVR) systems that are difficult to navigate and hard to understand. IVR systems automate call-answering systems, thus preventing a small business's staff from having to answer calls all day. IVR systems can be as simple as asking customers to press 1 for billing, 2 for product information and 3 to speak with a customer service representative, or as sophisticated as those that allow consumers to pay their bills via the phone or check on shipping statuses.

Bill Pawlak, president of the user-interface research, strategy and design firm Inovdesigns said that, to create a system that is helpful to both the business and its customers, business owners need to think about why someone is calling in the first place.

For example, if 80 percent of callers each day are requesting new passwords, he said, then an option for new passwords should be one of the first menu choices given.

"You want to organize information so it is useful to the end user, not necessarily the company," Pawlak told Business News Daily.

Pawlak believes there are three main categories businesses should focus on when designing an IVR system: menu options, navigation and language.

Menu options

When deciding on the IVR system's menu options, Pawlak said, it's important to keep in mind that you don't want to overwhelm customers with too many options. "You want to present options in a way that makes it easiest for the users," he said.

Pawlak offered some tips regarding menu options:

  • Fewer menu items: Because people can't see the choices and have to remember what they are hearing, IVR systems should have a maximum of five menu items, as people have trouble remembering any more than that, Pawlak said.
  • Popular options first: Put the most frequently used menu items at the beginning of the list.
  • Don't forget to pause: When asking callers to press buttons as responses, make sure there is an appropriate pause between menu items, since people using a cellphone must constantly move the phone away from their ear in order to press the correct key.
  • Numbers after descriptions: To reduce callers' dependence on short-term memory, the number key needed to activate a particular menu item should follow the text description of the item itself. For example, "To hear our product descriptions, press or say 1," rather than "Press 1 to hear our product descriptions."

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It's also important to make the system easy to navigate so customers can quickly get their questions answered or needs attended to, Pawlak said. "You don't want to make people jump through hoops," he said.

Pawlak offered small businesses the following system-navigation options:

  • Voice options: Allow users to select items by either punching a number on their keypad or using voice commands.
  • Instructions up front: When customers call, they should immediately be given instructions on how to navigate the system and which keys are reserved for special functions.
  • Option selection: Allow users to select an option at any time. Don't force callers to listen to an entire menu before they can make a selection.
  • Default options: Provide some basic default options that are used consistently throughout the application, such as a way to repeat a menu option, return to the main menu and speak with a customer service representative.
  • Always confirm selections: Verbally confirm caller choices so they can be confident that the system correctly understood their selection.


When deciding what to say on the IVR system, businesses must think like their customers, Pawlak said.

Although a business might have formal names for departments or use a lot of acronyms, not all customers know what those mean.

"You want to understand how people refer to the product or service and just speak the user's language," he said.

Pawlak's tips for what to say include the following:

  • Be friendly: Present voice prompts in the user's language and in a friendly tone.
  • No jargon: Avoid the use of technical terms and unfamiliar acronyms.
  • Be short: Use short, concise phrases for menu items and other prompts.
  • Explain errors: If an error occurs, tell the caller what the error was, and explain in more detail what type of correct input is expected.
  • Silence: Use silence to convey structure to callers, but be careful not to use too much, as users may think the system is no longer operating.

Here's one final tip from Pawlak: Never start off a call with, "Listen carefully, as our menu options have recently changed." He said there is no quick way to explain what the old menu options were, and it makes the assumption that the customer is a frequent caller.

"It automatically starts things off on the wrong foot," Pawlak said.

Chad  Brooks
Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.