The IVR Clinic – with Allison Smith: The 15 Commandments of IVR

By Allison Smith

The 15 Commandments of IVR

I am not an engineer of IVR systems; I do not write code, and I certainly don’t program or implement IVR systems. I am a professional voice talent who specializes in voicing IVR and auto-attendant systems — I have voiced platforms for large telcos and independent companies and organizations internationally; and I am probably best known for my work voicing the prompts for Asterisk, practically since its inception. Thanks to Asterisk, my voice can likely be heard — somewhere around the world — at any given moment of the day or night. I have been approached by Digium to blog directly on their site about the “science” of IVR — what makes a good IVR system flow; and conversely — what makes a system clunky and awkward to navigate around.

As I’ve alluded to: I’m no technical expert.

But from my experience in voicing IVR systems each and every day, I’ve acquired a bit of a working knowledge about the common pitfalls, and aspects which can radically improve the flow of an IVR. Through trial and error — and making the most out of badly written scripts while rejoicing in well-written ones — I can tell you what works and what likely won’t. I have arrived at a “Top Ten” list (well, actually, 15) of common pitfalls which I perceive to be the biggest barriers that get in the way of well-meaning companies just wanting to have an efficient method in which to guide their customers around their company’s structure, and their clients — who only want the path of least resistance (and least frustration) to interacting with the company. A point of clarification — and this was big watershed moment when this was pointed out to me by noted Asterisk guru Jim Van Meggelen: “IVR” seems to be a catch-all term which (we think) applies to a device which automatically transfers the caller to an extension without the intervention of an operator — this is actually an “Auto Attendant”. IVR — or Interactive Voice Response — is a technology that allows a computer to detect voice and DTMF keypad inputs or by speech recognition. In the telephony industry, “IVR” has come to be a generic term which has taken on the meaning of “Those Automated Prompts Which Guide You Around a Telephone Tree” (I’m guilty of genericizing that, too — my domain is

— but to hedge my bets, I also immediately purchased after Mr. Van Meggelen set me straight. I’m not taking any chances.) For the interest of simplicity, and the universality of its use, I will continue to use “IVR” as the catchall term which describes the automated nature of a telephony system. Even though it may be perpetuating a misnomer.

So on with that “Top 15 List”: If I had to narrow down the most common mistakes in writing and executing IVR scripts, I could probably boil them down into fifteen major “commandments” which should be broken only at your own peril (and only if you goal is to create a frustrating experience for your customer base):

1. Don’t Overestimate Your Listener’s Attention Span
2. Thou Shalt Not Create Fake Mailboxes
3. Keep Things Simple
4. Always Give Callers an Opt-“In”
5. Front-Load Important Information
6. Understand What Constitutes a “Prompt”
7. Understand The Effects of Proper Punctuation in Concatenation
8. Thou Shalt Not Give Directions To Your Office/Facility
9. Give a Pronunciation Guide for Proper Names and Place Names
10. Name Your Company Something That Needs No Special Instruction
11 Don’t Go Overboard with Niceties
12. Read The Copy Out Loud
13. Be Clear on Your Company’s Vision/Image — And Be Able To Explain That To Me
14. Don’t Front-Load Too Much Information in The Opening Greeting
15. Write in a Conversational Tone

Each Blog, I’ll spotlight one of these aspects, and explain in detail why following the above points will ensure a less-frazzled clientele, and you will enjoy the bonus of calls coming in following a nicely organized structure and being dealt with in a timely manner. Bliss!
A win-win for everyone!

Next blog, I’ll plant the all-important seed about attention spans. It’s by far the most pivotal of all the points. If you master this, your IVR karma will be impenetrable.

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There Are 6 Comments

  • Hi Allison,

    Thank you for the fantastic blog post. I will be sure to follow up on your writing more often.


  • Brian says:

    WOW, spot on advise. I like the idea of a 15 rules. Many I’ve not thought of. We look forward to more.

  • I’d add a 16th rule; don’t ever allow a dead end or assume that the call will be answered in a certain time, or at all.

    I’ve had this discussion with at least half of our new customers. They write call routes that assume someone will be there to answer the phone within a certain time, and don’t give me any way to route the call if it doesn’t happen. And I guarantee it will occasionally happen. Someone is out sick, off doing something urgent, or simply overloaded, and calls end up going to never-never land. Nothing will tell your customers “call someone else” like being hung up on or left in a queue with no updates for minutes at a time.

    It’s most amusing when I call a prospect or new customer’s old system and get stuck or hung up on. “Say, I can help you with this problem.” I do appreciate being handed such an easy sales advantage.

    This includes a night mode, and a transition to that mode. Calls in progress must be handled as people leave for the day, and new calls need to clearly inform the caller on the company’s status and what their options are.

  • Kirk says:

    You know I would love to read this entire series, but I find myself wondering if Digium has made it difficult to get to them in order on purpose.

    Hey Digium, how about a link at the bottom or top of each article to the next and previous articles in the seriers?

  • jtodd says:

    No, we’re certainly not trying to hide those articles! Our blog engine just churns along under its own power, and some articles move away from the spotlight with some time. To find all of Allison’s articles, type “Allison Smith” in the search bar at the top right of the page. While the results you get may not be in chronological order, Allison has conveniently put in numbers in the titles.

  • […] such as CallFire that will do it for you. For do-it-yourselfers, you’ll want to start with Allison’s 15 Commandments (for ease of reference, we have linked to the individual articles on Digium’s site below) and […]

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About the Author

Allison Smith

If you’ve listened to the public airwaves, used an automated phone system, participated in a phone survey, or even used a talking thermostat, you’re familiar with Allison Smith. One of the most prevalent telephone voices in the world today, Allison has voiced platforms for Vonage, Bell Canada, Cingular, Verizon, Qwest, Twitterfone, Hawaiian Telcom – as well as being the voice of the Asterisk Open Source PBX. Clients include Marriot Hotels, 3M, Pfizer, Toyota, Victoria’s Secret, Bank of America and EBay among many others. Her website is and

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