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Meet marketing's new best friend

IVR systems aren't just a boon to the contact center. In some cases, they can maximize inbound marketing opportunities.

Terms such as up-sell, cross-sell and inbound marketing tend to cause headaches for contact center managers.

If only there was a way for an automated system to handle it all.

There may be. A few companies and vendors are exploring the possibility of making relevant offers to their customers by using interactive voice response (IVR) systems, software that accepts voice and touch-tone telephone commands and delivers prerecorded responses.

"Getting a customer's attention with traditional outbound tactics is getting tougher and tougher," said Elana Anderson, senior analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. "Marketers are really starting to evaluate the inbound channels and are looking for alternate means in the contact center -- whether it's IVR, self-service or an agent on the phone." @4715

Communications Data Services (CDS) Inc., a magazine subscription service in Des Moines, Iowa, recently installed Interaction Advisor from San Mateo, Calif.-based E.piphany Inc. The software has a self-learning algorithm that takes data results and profiles customers most likely to accept an offer. Now, the company is exploring ways to make offers to customers through IVR, said Marc Francisco, CDS' product manager for customer service systems. CDS is still in the planning stages of a project that taps Interaction Advisor to provide relevant offers to customers through its IVR.

In the past, CDS has had its most success cross-selling and up-selling when customers speak to customer service agents handling such calls as change of address and bill payment. Now, CDS hopes to automate those processes without losing marketing potential.

Francisco said the goal is to convince customers that "we're not lengthening their call but [making a relevant offer] while we're processing transactions," Francisco said.

Companies that make a pitch to customers who may already be put off by an automated system may be traveling down a slippery slope.

"The challenge is there's always the risk of marketing going wild," Anderson warned. "IVR is a particularly sensitive area from that perspective."

Anderson said one financial services company uses IVR for proactive service. For example, when a customer enters his account number and is identified as being at risk for banking with a competitor, the system will generate a refinancing offer. With the push of a button, that customer is rerouted to a live agent.

New technology is emerging to help organizations take advantage of automated marketing. E.piphany's Interaction Advisor is one example. Anderson said that SPSS Inc., in Chicago, will likely offer something similar, as it integrates technology gained in its recent purchase of Dutch data mining firm DataDistilleries.

E.piphany's software enables an analytics-based approach, but some businesses can take a simpler approach, Anderson said.

"If you have a limited number of offers and options with a data set that is not fast moving, then a rules-based engine is perfectly fine," she said. "A lot of companies have built these themselves. For fast-changing data with many potential offers, then analytics makes a lot of sense."

Regardless of the outcome of a cross-sell or up-sell promotion, IVR still gives organizations a chance to collect information about their customers and reinforce their brand, Anderson said.

CDS is now identifying products that are easily described and testing offers to gauge IVR's likely marketing success. At this point, no one at the company expects it to generate more sales than live agents.

"We expect success rates are going to be less with IVR," Francisco said. "We attribute our current success rate to the relationship with a live agent."

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