Many companies are switching from staffed receptionists to interactive voice response

©­ Photographer: Fred Goldstein | Agency: Dreamstime

Meet Emily. Emily works for Bell Canada, answering phones for the customer service department. She's from the province of New Brunswick, got her degree from Carleton University and enjoys listening to music in her spare time. She's also a computer.

"Emily" is the name of Bell Canada's interactive voice response (IVR) system (her bio was provided by a ']press release.) When a customer calls with a question about their bill or to talk to a support specialist, they'll talk to Emily first. In a calm, pre-recorded voice, Emily guides them through the menu options, using speech-recognition software to understand the difference between "billing" and "support." If the customer wants to talk to a "real" customer service rep, he can always press zero. Emily won't be offended.

It's hard to think of a customer-oriented business that hasn't made the switch from live operators to IVR. When you call your credit card company, you can use the IVR to pay your balance or report a fraudulent charge. Airlines use extensive IVRs to book reservations and check the real-time status of flights. Pharmacies use IVRs for refilling prescriptions. And just about everybody uses IVRs to route calls to separate extensions or to access the company phone directory.

Large and small businesses have adopted IVR technology because it saves money that would otherwise be spent on living, breathing (expensive) employees. An IVR system's effectiveness is rated by the percentage of callers who ask to speak to a live operator. The lower the percentage, the more successful the system. Of course there are some IVR systems that never give you the option of speaking to a live operator. But even among IVR fans, that's considered bad practice.

So how do these automated phone systems work? Are we actually talking to a robot or just a smart piece of software? Read on to learn more about the technology behind IVR systems.