EDIE's been part of the Gulf Coast Educators Federal Credit Union for decades, and she's getting a tech makeover that will make her a fixture in the credit union and its public persona for years to come.

"The upgrade's allowed us to do a wider variety of transactions over the IVR, such as cross-member transfers, for example," says Jamieson Mackay, a vp for the 37,000-member credit union, who says the CU's interactive voice response system, EDIE ("easy dial inquiries etc"), is being expanded to match the bank's self-service oriented brand strategy.

The CU's part of a larger trend among financial institutions and tech firms to make IVRs more sophisticated and closer in function and style to the institution's brand and customer service posture.

The enabling technology is being developed on a couple of fronts. IVRs are being linked to CRM and core banking systems to ensure consistent service, access to relationship and customer data, and easy transactional functionality across voice, call center, online and branch channels. At the same time, efforts are being made to match voices and scripts to a bank's marketing focus.

Gulf Coast recently deployed a tech platform from Fiserv that links its IVR to its core banking system, allowing customer transactions and tailored customer service. It also allows the CU to present the IVR channel as a functional, information-laden destination. "Part of our brand is it doesn't matter how you access us, so we've allowed users to do things like use one PIN for both online banking and the EDIE system," Mackay says, adding that's made possible by the link between the IVR and core banking platform.

Quinton Hamel, an offerings development manager for Fiserv, says a dynamic IVR is increasing in importance as a retention tool as other marketing venues, such as telemarketing and mass mail, start to fade because of economic concerns and telemarketing opt outs.

In addition to integrating its IVR platform with its core banking and CRM platforms, Fiserv has added VOIP to allow the IVR system to move callers - and customer data - to other departments.

"If I'm calling in on an IVR and want to talk to a person, it's the same software, so all touch points-collections, lending, credit cards - can easily speak to one another," says Lori Barnett, also a Fiserv offerings development manager.

Rival Harland Financial Solutions is also using VOIP to move IVR calls seamlessly between areas of the bank, and a future project will extend its IVR to out-of-band communication, enabling voice to be tied to mobile channels for voice and text alerts. Jeff Marshall, a vp at Harland, says the firm hopes to be in pilot with this technology by the end of the year.

"There's a focus on a broad level by banks to recognize that the ease of doing business is a part of the perception of what a bank is doing," says Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst for Aite. "The IVR is a first point of contact. If customers can't get what they want, the perception is that bank is not easy to do business with."

Other emerging IVR technology seeks to improve the actual scripts that consumers hear when navigating an IVR. "You want to evoke the brand's guidelines. What are you trying to emulate? What words or phrases are you looking to use?" says Christy Murfitt, a senior manager at Nuance, which has developed a program that conducts an audit and analysis to develop an IVR style guide based on 24 brand dimensions, such as "friendliness, helpfulness, trusting, exciting, stable, respectful, etc."

The style guide is used to guide a voice casting session. The voices are recorded speaking in a way and tone that's consistent with what the bank decides is trying to evoke with its brand and marketing strategy. "If you are a more approachable bank or a conservative bank, do you say 'Hi" or 'Hello'?" You want make sure the voice also extends to agent interaction so the self service experience ties into the agent experience," she says, adding that it's possible to tie that customized IVR into the a bank's CRM platform, with tailored scripts for rules based alerts and informed customer interaction.

The IVR enhancements aren't coming in a vacuum, given how frequently voice response systems are used. The Gulf Coast CU's IVR receives 15,000 calls per week, compared to the 3,000 calls received by its call center. And Benchmark Portal, a contact center researcher, says about 61 percent of consumers contact their bank through IVRs for service, compared to about 13 percent via the Internet.

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