Design an Auto Attendant That
Drives Customer Engagement
IndustryView | 2015
Auto attendants are phone system applications that allow callers to select directory extensions using a voice menu. When designed properly, auto attendants help manage incoming calls and add a professional touch to phone interactions—but when poorly designed, they can be a significant annoyance for customers.
To clarify what counts as good auto attendant design, we surveyed consumers on how auto attendants impact their perceptions of businesses. We also called small and midsize businesses (SMBs) across the country to explore their use of auto attendants. This report will help other SMBs discover how to design and program auto attendants that enhance customer loyalty.
Auto attendants play a significant role for many SMBs. These software applications, which route incoming callers to the proper extension, often serve as the primary customer-facing element of their phone systems.
Avi Smirnov is the product manager of Microsoft Lync applications at AudioCodes (a vendor of VoIP networking products). “In many companies, the Auto Attendant application is the main access for inbound callers, so it is very important that calls reach their destination in a very fast and intuitive path with minimal mistakes and that no calls are dropped,” he explains.
“The Auto Attendant application is also a productivity application that should save the company money by sending calls directly to their destination instead of wasting other employees’ or operators’ working time.”
Conversely, contact centers for large organizations typically use an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system instead of an auto attendant. This software allows callers to complete actions over the phone (say, checking a balance or paying a bill), which is helpful for businesses with high call volumes.
We’ve explained before that IVR systems need to be optimized for ease of use, since they can place significant demands on customers’ memories and attention spans. What’s more, a well-known study by call center researchers at Purdue University found that 92 percent of customers form their images of a company based on their experiences with IVR systems. More worryingly, the same study found that 63 percent will stop doing business with a company based on a bad IVR experience.
Since IVR systems are so important to how enterprises manage customer interactions, we surveyed consumers to determine whether auto attendants have a similar impact on the customers of small businesses. We also called over 100 small businesses to determine how many have replaced receptionists with auto attendants during business hours, and tracked metrics on average greeting length, number of menu options and other design considerations.
Drawing upon the data gathered during our research, we determined that customers are likely to respond positively to auto attendants that adhere to a specific design philosophy. This design philosophy is intended to help SMBs avoid the major pain points that callers can encounter:
Our survey of consumers confirms that a well-designed auto attendant is critical. Indeed, a bad auto attendant experience can undermine customer loyalty:
Nearly half of our sample of consumers say they’ll take their business elsewhere if they have trouble using a company’s phone directory. Only 27 percent, combined, say they’ll resort to online channels such as the company’s website or email, and more consumers will resort to the phone than to email.
When we cross-reference data on the age of our respondents with their responses about pain points, we can observe more granular trends:
Auto attendants have an especially significant impact on the loyalty of customers over 54, who make up half of the respondents saying that they’d take their business elsewhere after a bad experience. However, even millennials value voice communications: Respondents between 18 and 24 years old are more likely to visit a business in person or to look for another phone number after a bad auto attendant experience than they are to resort to email.
When asked how they prefer to contact a local business such as a doctor’s office or a florist for the first time, consumers choose the phone by a considerable margin:
This emphasizes that local businesses should concentrate on voice channels first and Web channels second in their customer relationship strategies. For instance, only 1 percent of consumers say they’d use Web chat to reach out to a local business. More surprisingly, only 5 percent say they’d rely on social media, which is smaller than the percentage of consumers who would use fax (a technology often perceived as outmoded). Another striking finding is that in-person visits remain far more popular than email.
That said, when breaking down preferred contact methods by age, millennials are significantly more likely to rely on social media than other age groups (chosen by a combined 13 percent of respondents under age 35). However, we can also see that phone communication remains broadly popular across all age groups.
Your auto attendant will thus make your company’s first impression on many of your customers, which is why it needs to be optimized for ease of use. But which aspects of auto attendant design are most important?
To answer this question, we asked customers to identify their top pain points when using auto attendants to reach the appropriate extension at a business:
More than one-fourth of our sample say that long introductions are the most challenging part of using auto attendants. Another fourth identifies a confusingly long list of menu options as the primary drawback. This suggests that brief, punchy greetings and short lists of options are key to successful auto-attendant design.
In striving for brevity and simplicity, however, it’s important not to lose sight of other design considerations. One-fifth of our sample say that a lack of necessary context to pick the right menu option is their biggest challenge. Additionally, 13 percent say that the most significant problem with auto attendants is menu sequence—in other words, less important (and less frequently selected) options are listed first.
Thus, while it’s important to keep menus and greetings concise, SMBs still need to provide enough information for callers to make an informed selection.
In order to determine how long is too long for auto-attendant introductions and menus, we turned to our sample of SMB auto attendant menus. We timed the lengths of the introductions and counted the number of options within the auto attendant menu of each business. The following charts show average lengths for greetings and overall menus:
Small businesses may view introductory greetings as opportunities to market their brands to potential customers. However, most companies in our sample avoid branding messages in favor of keeping introductions short and sweet: More than half of the introductions we analyzed are less than three seconds long. This suggests that the potential to annoy your customers outweighs the potential to spread awareness of your brand in an introduction.
We also find that the vast majority (93 percent) of auto attendant menus in our sample are under one minute in length. Increasing the length of your menu above this average by including more options may alienate those callers for whom not finding the desired option near the beginning of the menu is a major pain point.
How many options, then, should menus include? We counted the options in our sample of auto attendants to arrive at an average number you can use as a guideline:
A combined 8 percent only include one or two options. In many cases, these options are for a general voice mailbox and/or a dial-by-name directory (a software feature that allows you to reach employees in the corporate directory by spelling the first few letters of their names with your keypad). While these auto attendants represent only the most basic call answering and routing functionality available, their straightforward design may be sufficient for very small businesses or those with very low call volume.
The number of auto attendant menus with more than eight options is quite small (6 percent): most include five options or fewer. Five options can serve as a good ballpark figure to aim for when designing menus, with eight options being the maximum. Including more may overtax the attention span of your callers.
Smirnov notes that auto attendant menus shouldn’t branch extensively (i.e., there shouldn’t be numerous submenus branching off from the main menu). If you must include submenus, Smirnov recommends limiting yourself to two or three.
One last factor that you need to consider when programming your auto attendant is what types of menu options to include. Hence, we tracked metrics on the most common menu option types in the SMB auto attendants we analyzed:
While options for individual employees are quite rare, dial-by-name directories are used by over half of our sample. A dial-by-name directory allows inbound callers to reach specific employees without substantially increasing the length of the menu—making it a better strategy than listing options for everyone’s extensions in the main menu (unless you only have a handful of employees).
Many small businesses use auto attendants to assist their receptionists, frequently using them to take calls after-hours. For some businesses, it may make sense to replace the receptionist with an auto attendant even during normal business hours.
Businesses can benefit in a number of ways by adopting such an approach: Unlike receptionists, Smirnov explains, auto attendants work 24/7 and are never busy. Additionally, he notes that they’re significantly less expensive than budgeting for an additional employee.
The following chart compares the industries of businesses that primarily depend on auto attendants with those that use human receptionists. (Note that businesses with receptionists may still be using auto attendants after hours, and those relying on auto attendants may still include an option allowing callers who need extra help to reach a receptionist.)
Clearly, the replacement of receptionists with auto attendants is much more common in some industries than in others—particularly in property management and retail, both with replacement rates of 83 percent. In property management, inbound callers have a variety of needs: reporting maintenance emergencies, contacting leasing agents, contacting managers of different properties and more. An auto attendant allows these callers to reach the services they need quickly, without having to explain their issues to a human receptionist.
The retail outlets we contacted were primarily auto dealerships, in which callers typically need to reach a department rather than a specific employee. Doctors’ offices also rely on auto attendants to funnel callers to the right department (e.g., office staff for appointment booking and nurses for medical inquiries). Finally, credit unions that service local markets often integrate their auto attendants with IVR systems that allow callers to complete actions such as checking account balances.
On the other hand, professional services organizations still primarily rely on receptionists. Small accounting, IT consulting and investment services firms (of which only 15, 33 and 17 percent, respectively, use auto attendants) generally have smaller customer bases than health care, retail or banking organizations, which also means that their inbound call volume is more manageable. Additionally, customers of these businesses may prefer the more personal touch of a human receptionist.
If your SMB belongs to an industry that relies on auto attendants, as per our findings, you may be able to reduce overhead costs by replacing your receptionist with a software application. For other businesses, it may make more sense to restrict the usage of your auto attendant to managing after-hours calls.
We’ve seen that auto attendant design can make or break a customer’s phone interactions with a local business. Thus, SMBs should strive to follow the design principles we’ve covered:
Consider replacing your receptionist with an auto attendant. Many SMBs use an auto attendant to route calls during business hours—especially in the property management, health care, banking and retail industries. An auto attendant may better address the needs of callers in these industries than a receptionist.
Keep overall menu length under one minute. The vast majority of auto attendant menus in our sample are under one minute in length, as long menus are another top pain point listed by consumers.
Keep introductions under three seconds. Long introductions have more potential to annoy your customers than to spread brand awareness. Our respondents single them out as their top pain point when using auto attendants, and most SMBs keep theirs three seconds or shorter in length.
Aim for five menu options; no more than eight. Our respondents cite “too many options” and important options being listed last as top pain points. Most of the SMBs in our sample have menus that only extend to eight options or fewer, with five being the average: a good guideline to follow.
Provide adequate context for callers to navigate the menu. One-fifth of our sample identifies a lack of sufficient context to select the proper option as a major challenge. Be as descriptive as you can in your option listings to help callers pick the right one.
Assign menu options to departments rather than employees. If your organization is large enough to have departments, list options for these rather than individual employees. A dial-by-name directory can route callers to employee extensions.
To find the data in this report, we conducted a one-day online survey of three questions, and gathered 675 responses from random consumers within the United States. Software Advice performed and funded this research independently.
We also called 153 SMBs in the nine U.S. Census Bureau divisions of the country to find examples of SMB auto attendants. We then analyzed audio data from calls with SMBs using auto attendants. We collected five examples of auto attendants from each Census Bureau division, and limited each industry segment to five examples, all of which are from businesses in different geographic divisions. After filling this quota for a given industry, we moved on to businesses in a different industry. We called each business during normal business hours to make sure that the business had fully replaced its receptionist with an auto attendant.
Results are representative of our survey sample, not necessarily the population as a whole. Sources attributed and products referenced in this article may or may not represent client vendors of Software Advice, but vendor status is never used as a basis for selection. Expert commentary solely represents the views of the individual. Chart values are rounded to the nearest whole number.
If you have comments or would like to obtain access to any of the charts above, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.