At its most basic level, an automated phone or interactive voice response system is any telephone system that interacts with callers without input from a human other than the caller. More specifically, interactive voice response, or IVR, is the technology that automates telephone contact between humans and machines.
Automated phone systems generally fall into three types: outbound, inbound and hybrid. Outbound telephone systems place calls to human recipients, either to deliver a recorded message or establish a connection with another human. Inbound systems answer calls from humans and interact with the callers; these systems may either meet the caller’s needs or connect the caller to a human operator. Hybrid systems combine features from both inbound and outbound systems, allowing them to both make and take calls.
Outbound automated phone systems work by accepting bulk input of telephone numbers, usually from a computer drive or database. Using a bank of telephone lines, the systems place calls and listen for answers; when the systems detect a human answer, they either play a pre-recorded message or connect the dialed party with an available human agent. Inbound systems work like outbound systems, but in reverse. These systems, typically operated by computers, answer incoming calls. The systems typically play a message, then ask the caller to either press a button or speak a response. Depending on the caller’s input, the automated phone system may play some information, route the caller to another prompt or connect the caller with a human operator.
Many businesses and organizations use outbound automated phone systems to deliver marketing messages to customers or connect customers with human telemarketers. Government entities also use outbound systems to deliver important announcements and emergency messages. Businesses and other organizations typically use inbound automated phone systems in place of a receptionist; these systems can route callers to the appropriate department, accept input and, when connected to a computer database, even answer basic questions.
Though automated phone systems offer a number of benefits for businesses, nonprofits and others, these systems have plenty of critics. Outbound automated phone systems have the potential to annoy consumers, and poorly configured systems can leave people listening to silence or receiving multiple calls during which the system simply hangs up. These systems have drawn so much ire that the Federal Communication Commission regulated their use and now requires businesses using them to take extensive compliance measures. Inbound automated systems also have a number of drawbacks, as large, poorly designed systems can leave customers feeling frustrated and unable to reach their intended party. Misdirected calls can also hamper productivity, so many businesses have discontinued their inbound automated phone systems in favor of connecting callers directly with live operators.