Exactly What An IVR Phone Tree Needs to Best Serve Callers


An IVR phone tree is like a map of your IVR’s pre-recorded messages and menu prompts. When implemented correctly, it can swiftly guide callers to the appropriate department, agent, or other resource for solving customer queries. 

In contrast, a poorly organized IVR phone tree can confuse callers, send them to the wrong department, and ultimately waste their time. This is why you need to nail down the key elements of your IVR phone tree to provide the best possible experience for your customers. 

5 Things Your IVR Phone Tree Needs 

1. Welcome and menu introduction messages that are no longer than 10 seconds (less if possible)

An IVR’s job is to help customers get the aid they need as quickly as possible, so a concise and crystal-clear script is a must. As such, your welcome messages should cut to the chase—not recite your company’s entire history. 

For example, “Thank you for calling [company name]. We are happy to help. Please choose from the following options so we can direct your call” is a perfectly fine template—it’s brief, friendly, and clearly states what the caller needs to do next. 

The same strategy should be used for any subsequent options. They must be short and clearly explain what each menu item does. 

For instance, one bad example would be something like, “If you would like to reach our customer service department, please press the number one on your keypad.” This is too wordy and would make the IVR a pain to go through if all the other menu options followed the same format. 

For customer service, press one” is much better—it’s a baker’s dozen words shorter and takes up far less time. 

One good practice to remember here is to mention the menu item before mentioning the number, and not the other way around. This lets customers anticipate some options so they can identify their options faster, thus making your IVR easier to navigate.  

As a general rule of thumb, all of your IVR menu’s welcome and explanatory prompts should take less than 10 seconds to read out. Avoid industry-specific jargon or unnecessarily complex language throughout your entire IVR script and aim for a fifth-grade reading level to ensure each caller understands what to do.

2. Limited menu options and more levels 

Your IVR menu should go easy on the options. Blasting callers with 20 main menu options will overwhelm them, causing many customers to hang up or skip ahead to a live agent—even if the IVR script is serviceable. 

Structure your phone tree into the most common and relevant menus and sub-menus. This will help customers get through the initial IVR messages as quickly as possible and ease them into finding a solution to their problem. 

Ideally, you should stick with three to five main menu options and the same number of sub-menu items—but remember, burying a ton of submenus under submenus is virtually the same thing as having too many top-level menus, so don’t just sweep the dirt under the rug.

In most cases, three menu levels should cover everything. If you choose five menu items on each level, you’ll have 15 total options—which is more than enough for most businesses. Keep everything nice and tidy, and think about how you can order each set of options so that most callers will find what they need without having to wait through irrelevant recordings. 

It’s a good idea to place the most popular options at the beginning of the main IVR menu. If a disproportionately large percentage of your callers contact the sales department, for instance, make that the first option in your IVR menu. Apply the same logic to your sub-menus, too.

3. Options to repeat, return to a previous menu, and start over

Mistakes can happen. Some callers may press the wrong menu items or miss what they need entirely. Lacking the option to correct themselves via the IVR menu will put them in an awkward situation. Callers will either have to request a live agent for help or hang up the call just to start all over again—which can be even worse.  

To prevent this, give callers the option to have the IVR repeat menu items whenever necessary. Also, add the ability to return to a previous menu item or the main menu via dedicated keypad buttons. 

You can bring up these options after the IVR has gone through each level’s menu items. This gives callers easy access to navigation options without being too obtrusive.

If your IVR software permits it, conditional-based triggers are also a good idea. For example, you can set up live agents to intervene in cases when callers are clearly spending too much time navigating through menus. If they’re frustrated, stepping in to help can significantly reduce call abandonments.

Of course, the best way to prevent callers from making mistakes is to provide clear menus and prompts that follow a logical order. Remember that your IVR can also specify the caller’s position within the menu each time after pressing the keypad—which can help callers recognize when they’ve made a mistake right away. 

4. Information on your other contact methods

Although many or most customers view phone calls as their preferred communication method for customer service, you shouldn’t neglect the portion of your customer base that prefers another way.

If your customers can contact you through chatbots, social media, emails, and so on, make sure to mention this to them as they go through your IVR menu—some customers may reach out over the phone simply because they are unaware of your other contact methods. For call centers that experience high volumes, this can make a big difference. 

In general, the best places and times to plug your other contact methods are at the end of IVR welcome messages and when customers are waiting on hold. 

This will not only spare customers who prefer other contact methods the trouble of going through your IVR in the first place, but it will also inform customers who don’t have the time to wait on hold that there’s another way. 

With that in mind, it’s a good idea to think about the tasks that can be solved more easily through means other than phone calls and bring up the options whenever callers reach those stages. For instance, payments or account balance checks on websites will always be more convenient—there is no need for customers to spell out their credit card details out loud.

5. Real humans for recordings

AI and text-to-speech tools in IVR recordings may be awfully tempting to implement, but don’t go down that route just yet. 

Sure, it’s cost-effective and time-saving, but customers can tell right away when messages are not coming from a real person. Not only can this create a sense of discomfort or frustration, but it can also lead customers to request calls from an agent rather than navigating your menu. 

Remember, IVRs are often the first direct line of contact a business has with its customers, so they play a huge role in a customer’s first impression of your company. 

In other words, you want your IVR messages to sound warm, friendly, and inviting, not cold and robotic. Thus, getting your hands on a solid microphone and recording the IVR messages yourself is almost always worthwhile. 

Of course, if you have the budget for IVR recording services, that’s even better. These services have professional voice actors and can even help you with your IVR scripts and phone trees. 

What’s Next? 

Although an IVR phone tree is key to delivering great customer service, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. Your next move will most likely involve your Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) system. 

Simply put, if IVRs handle basic inquiries and direct customers with complex issues to live agents, ACDs ensure that these customers reach the agents best qualified to solve their problems—with minimal wait times and bottlenecks. 

Altogether, nailing down both of these components is essential for your call center to provide smooth and satisfying customer service experiences. 

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