How Far Can You Go?
Managing Expectations in Conversational IVR Demos
As conversational IVR designers and developers, our team is often asked to provide demos as a communication and sales tool with prospective clients. When a fully functioning interactive demo is needed, putting it together can require weeks of effort and involve many people with various skills. That can quickly amount to a significant budget.
In other situations, we must rather produce canned demos, whose purpose is to “wow” potential clients by showcasing inspiring use cases and state of the art functionalities — even before the actual development takes place.
Between these two extremes, other types of demos can serve various purposes and can allow potential or existing clients to try, test and appreciate what a conversational IVR can do.
Different types of demos serve different purposes, require various amounts of effort and budget, allow diverse levels of hands on experience and involvement from those who try them, and present varying degrees of risk. Investing in the right type of demo for the right usage and the right prospect can be a determining factor in the success of that demo.
In the following paragraphs, I will describe four categories of demos, from the least to the most interactive, with their main characteristics, proposed usage, advantages and risks.
The canned demo
This is the type of demo that you often find on Youtube, where overly happy young people have an almost human conversation with the IVR. It recognizes the caller, understands everything, asks the right questions, reacts naturally when interrupted, and sometimes even risks a joke.
This type of demo is great to showcase the possibilities of a conversational IVR, to wow potential clients and make them dream, but also to provide decision makers with a vision of what their IVR could do for them, if they hired you. The canned demo is ideal to approach new prospects without investing a lot and without being too intrusive. Sales can safely use canned demos in early discussions with clients, and these demos can live on your website and be sent to anyone who’s interested in knowing about the potential of a conversational IVR.
On the flip side, canned demos can easily generate unrealistic expectations when the scenarios are too far from what your company can actually, realistically deliver. Overpromising is a risk, as well as making things look way easier than what they actually are to design and develop.
The scripted demo
The scripted demo consists of a working IVR that only supports a very finite number of scenarios, typically involving happy path use cases. It works well when the person calling the demo IVR knows exactly what to say, when, and how to say it.
This type of demo can allow you to demonstrate the technical feasibility of a few sample use cases in a fully controlled environment. Developing such a demo requires to design and develop a simple IVR, but it does not require to plan multiple scenarios or train sophisticated NLU models. Simple static speech grammars can be used, as long as the sample scenarios are covered.
While useful, this type of demo can easily underwhelm the recipient: it does not provide much of a wow factor, nor does it provide any hands on experience, since the prospective client is not really allowed to try it, with or without supervision. To use sparingly.
The environmentally controlled demo
The purpose of the controlled demo is to give your current or prospective client the opportunity to call a prototype of a conversational IVR, while making it clear which use cases or scenarios are included, and making sure you’re in the room when they call. It must be clear that the prototype is not production grade, but that it covers a large enough panorama of use cases and scenarios, including more than just happy paths.
This type of demo is great when you have an opportunity for more involved and detailed discussions with your client and wish to impress them with a sophisticated, well functioning demo. By trying it firsthand, your clients will get a feel for what their customers’ experience could be. By supervising the demo session, you have an opportunity to encourage your clients to try specific scenarios that you want to put forward, you can answer any questions they have and provide any technical details that they may find relevant or interesting. When properly done, this type of demo can convince a prospective client to move forward with your project.
This type of demo, however, requires quite a lot of work and presents some risks. To function properly, multiple scenarios must be anticipated and designed, including mixed initiative dialogues and error recovery strategies. In addition, the application must be robust to user input, which means a lot more time dedicated to developing good NLU models and speech grammars. Clients will try stuff; your demo IVR must be able to handle it.
The free roaming demo
That’s the fearless demo that you’re ready to release and let people use without supervision, and without you breathing down their necks. Scary!
This type of demo is more like a pilot deployment than a demo per se. It is pretty much the last stage of a prototype before it is ready to be deployed in production. It is extremely useful as a tool to collect data from a variety of users, or to share with internal employees at your client’s site to gather feedback for optimization. When it works well, it can also be used by some of your clients to showcase to other prospective clients in their enterprise, or by your partners to show to their clients.
Such a demo must include a significant number of functionalities, use cases and scenarios, including mixed initiative strategies, exception paths and error recovery strategies, as well as a very robust NLU module. This is costly. And the risk of letting such a demo out in the world is also significant. If it does not work well, it may have a very negative impact on your company’s image and communication strategy, among other things. But if it does work well, it can have enormous potential.
So, which one is right?
As you may have guessed by now, it depends. On what you want to demonstrate, to whom, in which context, on how much risk you are willing to take, and most of all, on how much time and money you can afford to spend.
- To manage risk, we recommend a few safety measures:
- Have a canned demo ready in case your interactive demo doesn’t work.
- Know your equipment and test it in advance.
- You should not use a speaker phone, as it affects barge-in and can impact speech recognition.
- Inform your department when you do a demo to ensure that no maintenance operation will take place during your presentation (yes, it happens!).
- The “demo curse” really exists! If a problem occurs, keep calm and carry on, and learn how to improvise.
In summary, whichever type of demo you decide to put forward, managing expectations and clearly communicating the demo’s purpose and limitations are essential to its success. You don’t get a second chance to make a good impression!
Many thanks to my colleague Jean-Philippe Gariépy for the initial idea, his review and great suggestions!
Originally published at https://www.nuecho.com on May 27, 2019.