EDIE's been part of the Gulf Coast Educators Federal Credit Union for decades, and she's getting a 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," said Jamieson Mackay, a vice president at the 37,000-member credit union. The upgrade of the interactive voice response system, EDIE ("easy dial inquiries etc."), is intended to dovetail with the credit union's self-service-oriented brand strategy, he said.

Gulf Coast Educators is part of a trend among financial and tech companies to make IVRs more sophisticated and closer in function and style to the companies' brand and customer service posture.

The enabling technology is being developed on a couple of fronts. IVRs are being linked to customer relationship management 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 make voices and scripts complement financial institutions' marketing.

Gulf Coast, of Pasadena, Texas, recently installed a system from Fiserv Inc. that links the credit union's IVR to its core banking system. This allows Gulf Coast 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 said, and those capabilities are the result of the link between the IVR and core banking system.

Quinton Hamel, an offerings development manager for Fiserv, said added-functionality IVRs are becoming more important to financial companies as other marketing techniques, such as telemarketing and mass mailing, fade because of economic concerns and telemarketing opt-outs.

Besides integrating its IVR platform with its core banking and CRM platforms, Fiserv has added voice over Internet Protocol to let the IVR system route 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," said Lori Barnett, a Fiserv offerings development manager.

A Fiserv rival, Harland Financial Solutions Inc., is using VOIP to move IVR calls between different parts of its bank clients, 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. Harland hopes to test the 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," said Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst for Aite Group LLC. "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?" said Christy Murfitt, a senior manager at Nuance Communications Inc., 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 and trust.

The style guide is used to guide a voice casting session. The voices are recorded speaking in a manner and tone consistent with what the bank is trying to convey 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 to make sure the voice also extends to agent interaction so the self-service experience ties into the agent experience," Murfitt said.

The IVR enhancements aren't coming in a vacuum, given how frequently voice response systems are used. Gulf Coast Educators' IVR receives 15,000 calls a week; its call center receives 3,000 a week.

And Benchmark Portal, a contact center researcher, said that about 61% of consumers contact their bank through IVRs, versus about 13% via the Internet.