How Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Works

By: Dave Roos

Common IVR Applications

­With interactive voice response, callers are routed to the right department or can obtain simple information.
­With interactive voice response, callers are routed to the right department or can obtain simple information.
© David Silverman/Getty Images

One of the most common uses for an IVR system is to route calls within an organization. In the past, you'd hire a receptionist or a switchboard operator to answer all incoming calls and route the callers to the right extension. An IVR system is especially useful when fielding customer-service calls. The system can present a caller with a list of menu options and questions about the nature of the call. If possible, the system itself can answer more frequently asked questions and route the rest of the calls to trained specialists.

IVR systems are ideal for retrieving simple, real-time information from a database. Movie times are a good example. Each week the movie listings are updated on a central database. This database can also be used to populate the movie theater's Web site. When a call is made to the theater, the caller can look up movie times in the database through voice or keypad commands. The same system can be used for checking account balances, reviewing recent credit card purchases, checking flight schedules, refilling prescriptions at a pharmacy, scheduling car maintenance, university class registration. The list goes on and on.


IVR systems are also useful for sales. A sales department can set up an IVR order form that callers can fill out using their telephone keypad. When the form is complete, the computer can then fax or e-mail a copy of the form to a member of the sales staff. A sales department could also use the IVR as a virtual brochure highlighting the features of a product or service with an option for speaking to a live representative at any time.

Marketing departments and political pollsters can use the outgoing call features of IVR systems. A political campaign could set up an outgoing message that includes a poll that voters can fill out over the phone. A marketer could gauge a customer's interest in his products or services. For those interested in the marketer's automated pitch, they could press a key to talk to a sales associate.

IVR systems can also be used as electronic notification systems. Let's say your organization has employees who work from home and are based around the world. The IVR system can be programmed with employee contact information: home phone number, cell phone, fax number, pager, e-mail address, et cetera. If a call needs to be routed to that employee, the IVR system will try each and every contact method in succession until a connection is made.

An interesting use of IVR technology is for transcribing medical records. Doctors currently record their patient records and send the audio to a medical transcription service. But with powerful voice recognition software, a doctor could call up the IVR system, record his notes and have a transcribed copy of the record e-mailed or faxed to his office.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of using an IVR system instead of live operators? Read on to learn more.