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Updated Feb 28, 2024

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

Create an intuitive IVR system with the best menu options, navigation and language.

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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Business owners implement interactive voice response (IVR) systems to automate call answering, streamline customer service and allow their staff to focus on specific queries. IVR systems can be as straightforward as asking customers to press 1 for billing, 2 for product information and 3 to speak with a customer service representative (CSR). They can also include sophisticated options for credit card payment processing and ways for customers to check shipping statuses. 

While IVR systems can make life easier for customers and employees, they can frustrate users. Poorly designed IVR systems can be challenging to navigate and hard to understand, creating a negative customer experience that can impact how people see your business. 

Fortunately, paying attention to specific design elements can help ensure customers enjoy using your IVR system. Here’s some advice for designing an IVR system that doesn’t annoy your customers and a look at business phone systems and call center services that can help. 

Editor’s Note: Considering an interactive voice response system for your business? If you’re looking for information to help you choose the one that’s right for you, use the questionnaire below to get information from a variety of vendors for free:

How to design an IVR system that doesn’t annoy your customers

According to Bill Pawlak, president of the product research company 15 Degrees, to create an IVR system that helps a business and its customers, business owners must consider why users call the system. 

For example, if 80 percent of daily callers want to create new, stronger passwords, an option for new passwords should be one of the first menu choices. “You want to organize information so it is useful to the end user, not necessarily the company,” Pawlak explained.

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

Menu options

Pawlak says that when deciding on the IVR system’s menu, don’t overwhelm customers with too many options. “You want to present options in a way that makes it easiest for the users,” he advised.

Pawlak offered the following tips regarding menu options:

  • Include fewer menu items in the IVR system: People can’t see their choices and must remember what they’re hearing, so IVR systems should have a maximum of five menu items. 
  • Place popular options first in the IVR system: Put the most frequently used menu items at the beginning of the list to make things easier for customers and route calls efficiently.
  • Include appropriate pauses in the IVR system: When asking callers to press buttons as responses, ensure there’s an appropriate pause between menu items. People who aren’t using speakerphones must constantly move the phone away from their ear to press the correct key.
  • Include numbers after descriptions in the IVR system: 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. For example, say, “To hear our product descriptions, press or say 1” instead of “Press 1 to hear our product descriptions.”
To better manage customer relationships, present your IVR options in a logical order that takes top customer concerns into account and includes a way to speak to a CSR.


It’s also essential to make the system easy to navigate so customers can get their questions answered quickly. “You don’t want to make people jump through hoops,” Pawlak noted.

Pawlak suggests the following system navigation options:

  • Include voice options in your IVR system: Allow users to select items by punching a number on their keypad or using voice commands.
  • Present instructions upfront in your IVR system: When customers call, the IVR system should immediately instruct them on how to navigate the system and tell them which keys are reserved for special functions.
  • Include option selection at any time in your IVR system: Allow users to select an option at any time during the call. Don’t force callers to listen to an entire menu before they can make a selection.
  • Include default options in your IVR system: Provide essential default options to use consistently throughout the application. For example, include an option for repeating a menu option, returning to the main menu and speaking with a CSR.
  • Always confirm selections in your IVR system: Confirm caller choices verbally so that they can be confident the system understood their selection correctly.


According to Pawlak, when deciding what to say on the IVR system, businesses must think like their customers. For example, while a business might have formal names for departments or use various acronyms, not all customers will know what those terms mean. “You want to understand how people refer to the product or service and just speak the user’s language,” Pawlak advised.

Pawlak’s language tips include the following:

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

Pawlak offers an additional script-related tip: Never start a call with, “Listen carefully as our menu options have recently changed.” There’s no quick way to explain the old menu options and it assumes the customer is a frequent caller. “It automatically starts things off on the wrong foot,” Pawlak said.

Did you know? Ineffective and frustrating IVR systems can equate to bad customer service in customers’ minds, leading some to abandon your brand after one adverse experience. 

The best business phone systems and call center services for IVR

Business phone systems often offer IVR functionality, making it easy to implement an IVR system for your business. 

Below are our picks for the best business phone systems and the best call center services that offer IV:

  • RingCentral: RingCentral is our top choice of business phone system for collaboration. The RingCentral MVP Standard, Premium and Ultimate pricing tiers all include multi-level IVR. This means you can add up to 250 IVR menus. Read our RingCentral review to learn more about what you get with this business phone service provider.
  • Nextiva: Nextiva is our top pick for multisite retail and healthcare business phone systems. With a Nextiva voice account, you can use advanced IVR to create customized, in-depth call menus. Read our Nextiva review to learn about the other features that come with an account. 
  • Ooma: Ooma is our best pick when it comes to small business phone systems. This vendor’s multilevel IVR comes with caller routing solutions like skills-based routing and intelligent reconnection. Read our Ooma review to learn about additional functionality for this business phone system.
  • Dialpad: Dialpad is our top pick for voice intelligence among business phone services. Through Dialpad, you can quickly customize your IVR menu, which is fully automated. Read our Dialpad review to learn more about this business phone system vendor.
  • 8×8: 8×8, our top pick for basic business phone service, also includes IVR. You can use 8×8’s drag-and-drop feature to arrange your IVR menu in exactly the order you prefer. Read our 8×8 review to learn more about what comes with an 8×8 account.
  • Go Answer: Go Answer is our top inbound call center service for small businesses. Your Go Answer services will include IVR; at an additional cost, you can hire the company to record your IVR greeting. Read our Go Answer review to learn more about the features this highly trustworthy inbound call center service offers.
Key TakeawayKey takeaway
To choose the right business phone system, evaluate your business's needs and determine if a virtual phone system, landline, VoIP system, cloud-based or on-premises system is right for you.

Building an IVR the right way

An IVR that your customers like should feel as intuitive to you as it does to them. Following all the above principles will help you achieve this goal as will implementing a high-quality business phone system or call center service. When you build the right infrastructure for your IVR and overall business, you set yourself up to provide the best possible customer experience. 

Chad Brooks contributed to the reporting and writing of this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
Max Freedman has spent nearly a decade providing entrepreneurs and business operators with actionable advice they can use to launch and grow their businesses. Max has direct experience helping run a small business, performs hands-on reviews and has real-world experience with the categories he covers, such as accounting software and digital payroll solutions, as well as leading small business lenders and employee retirement providers. Max has written hundreds of articles for Business News Daily on a range of valuable topics, including small business funding, time and attendance, marketing and human resources.
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