July 2006 - Backend Business

Live Agent or Automated Agent?

By Mike Moreau

In the world of inbound call centers, the emergence of automated agents or interactive voice recognition (IVR) systems as a competitor and an alternative to live agent applications can pose a dilemma for DR marketers and customer service providers.

Both applications have advantages and disadvantages both on the cost front and the people front. On the people front, one should consider when deciding which way to go, whether your core demographic from your media-be it TV, print, radio or direct mail-will be accepting of an automated voice recording their personal details, such as their home address and credit card number. Also, you need to determine whether those same customers would find it difficult to transfer from a live agent in the event they had a question not covered in the programmed script. In that case, the order will be lost and media dollars wasted.

Possible other conversion-related issues may arise if the price point is higher than $99.99 for the base offer plus upsells or if the product requires extensive explanation, such as a nutriceutical offer, where the caller generally has many questions regarding side effects and mixing medications with nutritional supplements. In those scenarios, an automated voice may simply not project enough confidence in the caller to go ahead and place an order.

The DR market is also seeing more soft and trial DR offers, where the customer calling does not know the price or is being called to place a free trial order. Those type of offers generally require a live sales agent, where scripting comes second to personal one-on-one conversations designed to gain the caller’s confidence as to why the price was not advertised, then justify that price by building value on the phone and then asking for the order and if need be, become tenacious in getting that yes. It would be a challenge to design an automated agent to be tenacious.

However, there are cost savings to be had using an IVR system if your core customer is accepting of the technology and the offer is generally below $99.99 including upsells. IVR is ideally situated for a national rollout after a test period has ironed out any wrinkles in the campaign wherein thousands and thousands of calls are projected daily and the price and offer are straightforward such as a kitchen gadget.

IVR - Yes
Live Agent - Yes
Hard offers of $99.99 or less where little explanation is needed on the offer Hard offers over $99.99 needing explanation and questions answered
Data capture calls (people leave name and number on a recording for a free brochure as an example with limited qualifying questions) Soft or trial offers, where selling is needed
Your target customer is 50 and under and is more accepting of the technology Continuity programs
Thousands of calls received a day Your target customer is 50 plus
Better upsell conversion rates Customer service applications

In my view, this is the most ideal IVR application: Base offer is $19.99 to $49.99. First, upsell another unit at a discount. Second, upsell an accessory to the base unit. Third, upsell and rush shipping. Finally, upsell a possible club membership.

IVR systems actually do better than live agents with all types of upsells and cross sells for one main reason. The offers are always read. The other reason is 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 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 your product really takes off and it is a good fit for IVR to begin with on the pricing and demographic front.

Benefits on the live agent side are easily identifiable. For hard offers where the price is known and an explanation of the offer is needed beyond basic questions and the price point is over $99.99, I would say live agent. 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.

If your caller is in the age demographic (50 plus), where he or she expects a live person on the phone and at the very least a live agent zero out option, I would recommend utilizing a live agent center.

For soft and trial offers where specially trained inbound agents have to “close the deal” and the calls can be 10 minutes plus, with third-party upsells, I would recommend a live agent environment.

For customer service inbound or outbound campaigns, I would always go with a live agent component, as in those situations your customers would be calling back with a complaint or an issue. And if he or she is steamed to start with, it has been my experience that customers become more irritated when they have to go through multiple voice or keypad prompts before possibly getting to a live person to deal with their issue. The chart on page 62 is a simple quick reference guide to point you in the right direction when searching for your inbound DR campaign call center needs.

Michael Moreau is director of sales and business development at Integrated Messaging Inc., an inbound order entry and customer service call center. He is also co-chair of the ERA’s Membership Committee for new member acquisition. He can be reached at (877) 417-3936, or via e-mail at [email protected].


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