Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Can You Hear The Future?

Rhetorical questions do not require answers. The answer is always very clear. Such questions are becoming very commonplace around the subject of speech technology or voice recognition. That’s because such technology will play an increasingly large role in all our lives in the future.

For example, Victor Keegan, in the Guardian asked Has voice recognition finally come of age? He based his positive view on relatively simple examples involving voice technology for note taking. As he said results can be impressive. Indeed this blog post is written with Nuance NaturallySpeaking software and there is rarely need to correct the text produced from my dictation

Michael Sola, Director of IT at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, wrote in a somewhat similar vein Can you hear me . . . again? He is pointing out that the world is going increasingly mobile. Different people want to handle their messages in different ways. A good proportion would certainly prefer to see them written out. So a speech technology service is inevitable.

Why is this groundswell of opinion on the inevitability of speech technology so strong? The more perceptive observers might point to the considerable efforts that Google seems to be putting into this area. That may well be justification enough for a bullish view. However the underlying reasons are much more straightforward.

David Mould, a Telco Consultant living and working in Thailand, has a keen interest in these emerging technologies. He lays out these reasons in a recent post on Ingredients for a good voice based service for cell phones. Here is what he says on this:

The impact then will be in services that are one or more of:
  • key intensive
  • time intensive

Key intensive activities are those that require many keystrokes, e.g. navigating IVR or text messages. Many handsets today (the Nokia E50 for one) have message readers that provide alternative methods for reading received SMS’s. With the growing restrictions on use of mobile devices whilst driving, a service that allows you to dictate and send an SMS through a voice interface, as opposed to keyboard strokes, could prove to be very popular and useful.
(A key) service, available from other providers such as Jingle Networks (1-800-FREE411), is directory services. You can use the voice interface to search for services and typically will be connected automatically.

A directory search would normally be a time intensive and/or key intensive activity. By creating an access channel via voice, this turns the interaction more into a conversation or discussion. This has the benefit of creating appeal in less technically able groups who look for a more familiar access path.

Key intensive or Time intensive applications are likely to be those most people like to avoid. Any such application based on speech technology with good functionality is likely to see a ready and rapidly expanding market.

Overall if you do not hear the future, perhaps you’re just missing out on the buzz that is all around you.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

When is an IVR system satisfactory?

Any company or service that must handle a large number of callers will inevitably install an IVR system. What factors does the owner of such a system consider in deciding whether performance is satisfactory? Here are some of the important ones:

  • the cost of running the system
  • the number of calls the system handles
  • the proportion of calls that must be handled by a human operator
  • the number of complaints about the system

Unfortunately the general level of satisfaction with IVR systems is low, so people may not complain even if they’re not completely satisfied. That’s why some IVR system owners adopt some of the ruses mentioned by Carl Turner in his recent article Tricking the caller to stay in the IVR. Here is a sample of what he is discussing:

I don’t think I’ve worked on an IVR project when the business people didn’t suggest using “tricks” to keep callers in the system. You know what I mean by tricks: disabling the zero key, or playing a routing menu when zero is pressed, or using a non-zero key for transfers, messages that falsely state long queue times, or putting the caller back in the system after they request a transfer. Often the tricks that are used in IVRs can create pure misery for the caller.
It’s all very well to try to reduce the cost of the operation but that’s not the whole picture. Callers are often customers. Without them the business is nothing. So when is an IVR system satisfactory. The only sensible answer must be when callers find it satisfactory. That’s why Carl Turner offers the following advice:
My recommendation to companies considering using tricks to keep customers in the automation: work on the quality of your IVR first. Monitor, survey, read the reports, improve. Once you’re satisfied that the IVR operates flawlessly you can consider using some small inducements (a nice way of saying a subtle trick) to keep callers in the IVR. If it’s done properly you might be able to increase your automation rate slightly with no cost to the user experience. However, it all depends on first getting the IVR right.

Business owners should not find this thinking difficult to accept. Customers are much more in control in this Internet age. It is very much easier for them to check out the competition and switch if they’re not completely happy. That’s why it’s essential to be customer-centric. You’ve got to see it from the customer’s point of view. So once more, what is the only possible answer to that question, “When is an IVR system satisfactory?” It’s when the customer tells you it’s satisfactory.

It’s True: Your Customer Can Love Your IVR (or at least be good friends)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

VUI (Voice User Interface) Applications Can Go Live Faster

The Voice User Interface Development Reality

When developing an IVR solution, a core part of this is the Voice User Interface (VUI). Developing and implementing VUI applications is usually a very lengthy process. Following the usual development stages required for any software system, VUI applications usually require exhaustive tuning processes, especially when involving natural language, to make them deliver close to natural language experiences.

The long time required to launch VUI applications often results in compromising on the requirements. This usually means accepting simpler applications that are easier to develop but which will deliver less satisfactory caller experiences.

In other cases, in trying to meet the target launch date, testing and tuning activities are short-circuited leading to:

  • lower call resolution rate
  • lower customer satisfaction
  • lower operational saving

In other words, this means lower overall quality and inevitably increased cost to correct deficiencies.

VUI Development Improvement

The time to launch VUI applications successfully can be shrunk by using advanced tools such as the ones used and offered by Crimsonet. These automate the major coding activity in a VUI application life cycle. This is done using a modeling process, which then is followed by auto generation of the code. Rapid cycles of testing and adaptation can take place to meet evolving business needs while improving the applications quality. The result is higher quality VUI applications and increased caller satisfaction.

For the business that is implementing a VUI application to automate their contact center services, the result is increased operational savings. For the VUI solution provider, the result is a competitive advantage over competitors using traditional tools for their VUI implementations.

The VUI Development and Implementation Process

A VUI application must include the following phases on its way to a successful launch:

  • Definition phase, including requirements gathering and high-level design, creating a definition of the application and setting the stage for the detailed-design to follow. The definition phase requires exploring and understanding the business goals, the users, and the functionality required for the application. The outcome of the definition phase is a requirements definition document.
  • Design phase, creating a complete and detailed description of the application, including the call flow, the prompts to be played by the system, the spoken expressions to be recognized by the system, and the external interfaces to implement the requirements as per the high-level design guidelines. The outcome of the design phase is a detailed design document, and possibly a prototype.Usability tests may be conducted early in the design process to validate the design from a user perspective, using the Wizard of Oz (WOZ) approach.
  • Realization phase, including the application development, testing, and tuning. The development includes the creation of the application software, the development of the grammars to be used for the user speech recognition, and the production of the audio to be played by the application, including prompts as well as nonverbal audio.Testing activities include application testing, recognition testing, and usability testing.

Once the system has been tested, it’s ready for deployment. A phased deployment approach is used. It starts with a pilot exposed to a limited number of users. The number of users is gradually increased until the system is fully deployed. During the phased deployment process, tuning activities take place, including dialog and recognition tuning, optimizing the system performance to meet the requirements.

The VUI application development and implementation process timeline can be illustrated as follows:

VUI application development and implementation process

Conceptual Activities vs. Mechanical Activities

The Definition and Design phases described above involve lots of communication (like interviewing users in the requirements gathering), analysis activities (as when defining the system requirements out of the business, users, and application needs), and familiarity with human behavior. Those activities can be considered as conceptual activities, requiring human intellectual capabilities in order to be performed.

The Realization phase on the other hand, includes more routine and mechanical activities by its nature. Once the design has been laid down in details, the job of translating it to the system physical components is mostly logical and mechanical. Not all the system components are the same. The audio production obviously requires actors to perform and be recorded; on the other hand the process of programming the call flow is very mechanical; and in between, the tuning activities are a mixture of very mechanical activities and human expertise.

Automating The Mechanical Activities

Technology can be used to automate the mechanical activities. A good example is implementing the call flow.

Before coding the call flow software, a good practice is to document in details its requirements and the high-level design, review all this, and then approve it. Then a detailed design document is prepared; once reviewed, approved, and baselined, it will be the reference for the call flow software coding. In reality, as in any software development process, the design document as baselined in the beginning of the software coding keeps evolving, creating the need for a configuration management process to maintain integrity between the design and the software code being developed. GUI tools can help capturing the detailed design of the call flow, making the job faster and easier. It is easier for the initial design, as well as for modifications as may be required as a result of testing or tuning. Once the design has been captured in the system, a system can automatically produce the executable that can be then loaded to the target system and executed.

“What’s the big deal?” You might ask; “we’ve been doing it for years with our GUI and database applications”. This is exactly the point: if this approach is good for GUI and database applications, why not for VUI ones?

The tool that is most commonly used these days for VUI applications development is VoiceXML. VoiceXML is a speech-centric language providing speech dialog components. Even though it’s relatively easy to develop VUI applications using VoiceXML, it nevertheless is a programming language requiring programming skills and techniques as well as software development techniques to be applied successfully.

Ultimately, we will see an advanced tool for VUI applications development which allows the capture of the call flow design using a dedicated GUI environment. This will then automatically produce the VUI application components, which are the call flow code and the grammars.

Tuning Aid Tools

While the call flow creation is very similar in its nature to any other software application development (except for the executables that are more specific to these applications, like the grammars), the system tuning is unique to VUI applications development.

The reason for that is that human speaking behavior, especially natural speaking, is more difficult to predict than behaviors in operating other software applications. The only way to address it is to start with an application based on the best predicted behavior possible based on agents experience or service call recordings analysis. This is then tested with real users. This way real user behavior can be experienced and difficult to predict actions can be identified and addressed. As the system is being exposed to more and more users, the less likely it is that a new behavior will show up. This is the nature of the tuning process.

Usually the process of collecting the user inputs, analyzing them, and applying the changes needed requires very technical skills, and therefore is provided as a professional service by the speech engine vendor. When the system is live, ongoing tuning for performance improvement is done only from time to time, usually every couple of months. When complete usability tests and tuning activities must be performed prior to launch in order to reach the acceptable recognition level, this may well take a long time and delay the system launch.

Advanced system monitoring and reporting tools that allow ongoing analysis of the system performance on a daily basis by people that are not necessarily technology experts, as well as tools to rapidly address the monitoring findings, make the job of system tuning much easier and quicker. This applies prior to the system launch, as well as continuing after launch during its ongoing operation. This allows earlier launch of the system while its tuning continues after it has gone live.

The Improved VUI application development and implementation process can be illustrated as follows:

Improved VUI application development and implementation process

Shorter Time To Market Combined With Higher Quality for IVR Projects Is Possible

From experience in IVR projects using automated VUI tools as described above, the project effort and duration can be reduce drastically, resulting in overall time to launch being reduced by between 50% and 70%. Once the time to launch has shrunk, and the application development cost has been reduced, a couple of options are available:

  • More effort can be put into improving the quality of the application thus increasing customer satisfaction and reducing operational costs (as a result of higher call resolution rate).
  • More complex applications, like natural language ones are now considered doable, resulting in automation of more services and therefore further operational cost reduction.

IVR applications can go live faster using these advanced VUI tools. They’re a very powerful example of the improved human-computer interaction that is now possible.

Related: The Future of Human-Computer Interaction, ACM Queue vol. 4, no. 6 - July/August 2006 by John Canny, University of California, Berkeley - Is an HCI revolution just around the corner?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Advanced IVR Is Winning Out

IVR is sometimes applied to those company telephone systems where you punch keys to work your way through a menu of choices trying to find someone to help you. Increasingly callers are dissatisfied with this approach.

As Alan Hubbard points out in an eCommerceTimes article, 43% of companies surveyed in their “Contact Center Analytics” benchmark were either seeing poorer performance in call abandonment rates or didn’t measure this KPI (key performance indicator) at all. His company is finding that speech self-service can have significant impact on customer satisfaction and operational costs (staffing).

With advanced IVR, customers often prefer it over a human agent or a message that says comeback during business hours. Being able to access account or order information via speech IVR or accessing a voice portal via their cell phones allows the call center customer access to data they previously had to wait for.

His finding that over the next 12 to 18 months, 30% of Best in Class companies plan to implement a speech self-service application is therefore hardly surprising. Speech-enabled IVR is now clearly top-of-mind for many companies.

More Human Agents May Not Be The Answer To Better Customer Service
Customer Service Needs Tough Love

Thursday, October 18, 2007

GOOG-411 or CALL-411 - Voice-actuated Mobile Web

There are many who are touting the huge potential of the mobile web and there are many others who are pointing out the considerable hurdles the mobile web must overcome. Some of the most difficult hurdles can be overcome using voice recognition technology. Announcements this week by Google and Microsoft would seem to confirm this thinking.

As the Google Blog tells us, their local business info service has officially graduated from Google Labs. To mark the occasion, they’ve launched a brand new GOOG-411 website.

GOOG-411 helps callers find and connect with local businesses just by dialling 1-800-GOOG-411. It’s a voice-based local search service, which means it uses speech-recognition algorithms to recognize what a caller is saying and then finds the local business information he or she is looking for. These algorithms had to be trained with real utterances, much like how a baby learns language by listening to its parents. Since its unveiling in April, GOOG-411 has successfully served millions of callers.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft this week unveiled their voice-operated rival, with a free directory-assistance service for mobile users. Live Search 411 (FAQ) delivers local listings as well as weather updates, movie show times and airline information. Users with Internet-enabled devices can also receive links to maps and one-click driving directions. It also works with regular PCs. Last month, Microsoft rolled out several enhancements to its core Live Search portal, including updates designed to improve results for queries related to entertainment, shopping and health care.

The GOOG-411 and CALL-411 applications may be handling a relatively simple problem. However the same approach can easily be expanded to cover many of the services that mobile Web users are looking for. This is an important step in the growth of the Mobile Web.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

SpeechTEK 2007 - Speech Technology Becomes More Mainstream

SpeechTEK brings together the people who build the telephone voice response systems that are becoming a ubiquitous part of our lives. As Christopher Herot reports, while many of these systems are downright annoying, the cost savings are impressive - one estimate was that every second shaved from the human interaction in a directory assistance application saves the phone company $7 million. The developers are keenly aware that the caller is not always enthusiastic about speaking to a robot and in fact measure their success by reducing the percentage of the time the caller presses 0 to get to a human being.

The opening keynote speaker perhaps signals a different way of approaching this. Mike Cohen is Google’s speech technology group manager and was previously with Nuance. He focused primarily on his company’s speech-powered mobile program, GOOG411. This service, which is currently available in the USA, allows cell phone users to get directory information using voice commands. As Cohen noted, when searching on the mobile Web, users want specific information fast. To tackle this challenge, Cohen suggested speech technology has an advantage over traditional means of data entry. He underlined the importance of keeping an “obsessive focus on the end-user.”

With the resources that Google and others are putting into similar applications, it is likely that callers will more readily accept similar speech technology systems. If such systems deliver good user experiences, it is less and less likely that callers will inevitably go for the 0 key and be willing to wait their turn for a human operator.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Orange Confirms The Trend To IVR With Speech Recognition

In May 2006, Computing saw only a slow-moving trend towards the use of speech recognition technology. A few UK companies including Powergen, British Airways, Lloyds TSB, Barclays and Odeon were adopting such systems. The holiday firm First Choice joined this select band with a customer contact centre in Manchester, handling 600 calls a day, and dealing with the most common enquiries about balances owed on holidays, making payments and checking on ticket status.

At the time, a Gartner analyst Steve Cramoysan predicted steady, rather than spectacular, growth. He suggested, ‘One thing that may push things along faster is Google, which is talking about introducing voice search over mobile phones. If that happens, it will take this technology down a whole new high-profile track.’

Google is clearly putting major effort into this area but as yet they have not revealed plans. Nevertheless in advance of that, the advantages of using speech technology are being increasingly recognized and exploited by the front-runners. Mobile phone network operator Orange has announced that it will improve customer service with the implementation of a speech recognition system. The move is part of a £100m investment in customer services in the light of increasing criticism from consumer groups about poor service at the company. Orange added 1,000 call centre agents in the last year and will now upgrade its customer service systems by improving the underlying platforms that route incoming calls.

Given the poor reputation of the telecommunications companies for customer service, it may be expected that other telecoms will be following the Orange lead.

Customer Service From Telecommunications Companies

Friday, August 17, 2007

Local Call Center Agents On The Way Out - Perhaps Not.

As the New York Times recently reported, Booz Allen Hamilton, a management-consulting firm, and Duke University studied 600 companies last year and found a continued increase not just in outsourcing, but also offshoring, in which call centers are moved overseas.

One company bucking the trend is Netflix. They are fighting Blockbuster for DVD sales by mail. They have set up their call center in the greater Portland area because of the genial attitude on the part of most service workers. Michael Osier, vice president for information technology operations and customer service, said he rejected cities like Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, which are known as call-center capitals, because of their high employee turnover rates. Matt Mani, a senior associate at Booz Allen said, “This is a unique strategy for Netflix. There’s so much more competition, this is something they’ve done to get closer to the customer, because without that, there’s really no connection a customer has to Netflix.”

Netflix’s decision to greet anxious consumers with a human voice is now unusual in corporate customer service. It also represents a high cost choice. It you hire too few human agents then callers must wait interminably for one to come free. To ensure a rapid response, there must be enough call agents to answer calls within a short time delay. The hiring, training and scheduling of sufficient call agents are quite a challenge.

Rather than relying solely on human call agents, a better and more economic solution is to combine Natural Speech IVR agents with human agents. Simpler caller requests can be handled by the IVR agents. More complex calls or those where the caller wishes to speak to a human agent can be rapidly transferred to a well-trained and welcoming agent. Such a combined system gives greater flexibility to deliver better caller experiences with optimal use of the available human agents. Such ongoing optimization is an integral part of a Crimsonet IVR project.

Since a combined system like this delivers greater caller satisfaction and good economics, it will ensure that local call-center agents are with us for a long time to come.

Friday, July 27, 2007

IVR Doesn’t Spell Frustration

In the online Montreal Gazette feature on “Your call is important to us”, Roberto Rocha has an interesting interview with Mark Goldberg, a telecom consultant. Goldberg is probably representing the average telecom executive’s view in the following:

The real challenges for the communication industry are the same of almost the entire inbound call centre industry. People aren’t necessarily having a worse experience with telecoms. They just have more reason to call the telecom than any other type of utility.

Because of the volume of calls, it’s incumbent on the service provider to handle those calls as cost effectively as possible. That’s where I think people run into the greatest frustration. Cost effective is not a compatible characteristic with down home friendly service.

I understand one of major coffee shop chains in Canada has trained employees to not be friendly. They smile and everything but it’s not efficient to get into a friendly conversation in a fast food coffee shop. That same principle applies to mass volume call centres.

In order to handle calls more quickly, telecoms have stuck those automated voice systems before the human agents. And that’s as unfriendly as it can get. It’s a huge frustration level, especially when you have to wait while hearing that your call is important to them. If you felt my call was really important, you’d have enough people to handle my call.

But what the company is attempting to do is lower their cost structure. The alternatives are to pass on the cost to consumers or ship all service overseas, which can result in a deterioration of service.

In summary, we’re no worse than anyone else and the only alternatives are less satisfactory.

The “E Source 2007 Review of North American Electric and Gas Company IVRs” would certainly confirm that average view. They assessed the IVR systems of 103 U.S. and Canadian utilities. They found that utility customers consistently report lower levels of satisfaction when they use an IVR compared to talking directly with a phone agent, dealing in person with an agent, or even interacting with their utility at the utility web site.

The point is that not all IVR systems are created equal. Modern technology can ensure that IVR is able to respond intelligently to clients. That’s what the report found for the highest rated companies such as Cleco Power, Florida Power & Light, Progress Energy (Florida), Sacramento Municipal Utility District, and Omaha Public Power District.

Sandy Goodwin, director of the E Source Utility Customer Care Service, points the way. “Highly rated IVRs are providing a convenient way for customers to interact with their utility, but they are also helping the utility to reduce operating expenses. Increasingly, good IVRs are key to the success of a utility’s call center. The best systems highlighted by our review offered the functions that customers wanted and made those functions easy to find and to use.”

Saturday, June 30, 2007

We’re No Worse Than Anyone Else

The title is a phrase you probably recognize instantly. Tom Peters who wrote In Search of Excellence in 1982 often told the story about the company where he heard this. Everyone related to it. For example Bob Stone working in the US federal government quoted it in an excellent article on Culture Change in February 1999.

As he said:

Six years ago Vice President Gore gave me and 200 other career federal employees the chance to figure out what was wrong with the federal government and what to do about it. For us it was the chance of a lifetime, a chance to use our talents to the fullest, to let us take charge of our part of the world, to change the very culture of government, to change our work so that it would be admired and appreciated by the American people.

He went on to say:

So, based on my own credentials as a culture changer, and on the infallible authority of “Yes, Minister” and Dilbert, I can confidently contradict the other experts and say this about government: we may be risk adverse, but we’re no worse than anybody else.

Unfortunately the phrase is just as applicable now. It came to mind in reading an article on “Why Loyal Customers Are Harder to Find Today” The answer to that question seemed to be that since customers now have more choices they are more demanding. It was almost as if the problem was the customers.

You can regard this as bad news or good news. If your competitors are applying the standard of We’re no worse than anyone else, then you have a real opportunity to steal their customers. Unfortunately few companies seem to be taking this opportunity when it comes to customer service.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Poor IVR and Untrained Human Operators Both Frustrate Customers

Tim Searcy of the American Teleservices Association comments that Call center problems go global. Around the world, similar problems are very evident.

First, offshoring is a concern in each local market. Representatives from Australia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East voiced the same complaints about “foreigners” answering toll-free phone calls on behalf of products and services companies. Universally, there appears to be a distrust of someone outside of a person’s own country handling a service or sales issue.

Second, technology without training has decreased customer satisfaction. Call center software Aspect has expanded its customer satisfaction index to include Europe but the results are similar to the United States. Consumers desperately want to experience first call resolution from trained individuals that are pleasant. The interactive voice response has replaced good satisfaction design in many cases and worldwide there is an epidemic of frustration about IVR jungles and lengthy queues.

Interactive Voice Response systems, as supplied by Crimsonet, can avoid these types of problems.

Voice 2.0 and IVR

Voice 2.0 is the title of a conference that will take place in Ottawa on November 5 - 6, 2007. The term, Voice 2.0, was first coined late in 2005. To an extent it builds on the notion of Web 2.0, which was coined by Tim O’Reilly.The conference description points to some exciting developments:

Voice 2.0, or New Telephony, has arisen as a result of the convergence of Telecom and the Web. In the process, heavily communications oriented Web 2.0 applications are placing new demands on network infrastructure, and developers of traditionally computing centric products such as video games and business process applications, are discovering whole new opportunities when their products are augmented with human oriented communications ( i.e. voice).

Paul Graham has pointed out that Web 2.0 acknowledges some of the basic principles of the Internet. Democracy is much more powerful and users will not accept being maltreated.

Equally the Voice 2.0 principles should have the same impact on simpler applications such as IVR. The older style IVR systems controlled the user. Now users will insist on retaining control of the conversation, as is possible with modern IVR systems. This will put strong pressures on companies to upgrade to match their competitors.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Your Call is Important to Us

Your call is important to us. Surprisingly it is not one of the biggest lies. However many would say that it should be. It seems very likely that Montreal Gazette tech reporter Roberto Rocha is on a winner in featuring this topic on his blog. He is looking for inputs from Gazette readers and he may well be overwhelmed by the response.

Some, like Hans Sander, have suggested that the solution is to add more call agents. However Ken Belson in the New York Times questioned that solution since some jobs are so boring that workers fall asleep.

The best solution is to use one of the modern IVR technologies as described on this website. In that way callers receive the very best service with an immediate response from the IVR system and a rapid transfer to a human call agent if the call is complex. It will be interesting to see whether such solutions are discussed in Roberto Rocha’s new blog.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Voice Control for Getting Mobile Information

One motivation for Nuance’s acquisition of VoiceSignal announced this month was said to be better mobile voice control. This is very much what the marketplace is seeking.

For example this week it was noted that the Vancouver International Film Festival will have a Mobile VIFF Interactive Voice Guide. This will provide a voice-driven front-end to the VIFF’s on-line database of festival films and events. This will allow users to quickly retrieve a wide variety of information using a combination of pre-recorded prompts and descriptions. It can be used from any phone but clearly certain functions are very much applicable to mobile devices.

With the improvements in voice recognition technology, such applications will be increasingly common.

Friday, May 25, 2007

IVR must deliver better user experiences

Forrester has just rolled out a report authored by Moira Dorsey, entitled Best And Worst Of Phone Self-Service Design, 2007. Forrester applied its Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Review methodology. The report examined the phone self-service experiences at 16 firms — four of the largest credit card issuers, consumer electronics retailers, PC manufacturers, and wireless providers. None of the companies passed the Forrester evaluation but a number are now beginning to adopt best practices. JPMorgan Chase received the highest overall score. Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Dell and Cingular all received honorable mentions. The key message in the report is that effective IVR solutions will only be developed by looking at the user experience and ensuring the systems meet users’ needs.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Voice Recognition Closes In On... Customer Service Call Centers

There’s an interesting article in today’s New York Times entitled ‘Voice Recognition Closes In on HAL‘. It describes the intriguing work that is being done by companies such as IBM to allow you to control some of the systems in your automobile by your voice. It’s a tough environment for voice recognition systems and safety concerns are paramount. However within five years they’re predicting quite phenomenal results, although they may initially appear only on luxury cars.

Such developments help to explain why voice recognition systems are moving so fast into customer service call centers. There’s a huge demand for such systems given that the traditional ways of providing customer service to callers are costly and rarely give customers a satisfactory experience. The technical challenges are very much simpler than trying to make such systems work in an automobile. A customer speaks directly into a telephone and is usually calling from a low-noise background environment. If it takes a few seconds more to identify exactly what is required, then there are no safety concerns. All-in-all it’s highly likely that most of the call centers you call will be using voice recognition response systems long before you’ll have HAL or anyone else controlling your car.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Speech technology will be the big winner in mobile Web growth

Everyone acknowledges that the fastest-growing sector on the Internet is the mobile Web. What is not often remarked is that there will be many difficulties in creating seamless experiences in surfing the web because of the competing standards and the diverse devices that are being used. Smart phones may seem attractive but using those tiny keys is challenging. Nevertheless since the world is on the go, the demand is there.

Speech technology is a very attractive proposition to help deliver that mobile Web experience. Just think of surfing to a voice portal or vortal as some are dubbing them. By simple voice commands, you can completely control what appears on that tiny screen. You wish to order something so you just keep talking. Voice recognition technology is already well understood: it’s just a question of refining the applications.

Two recent major acquisitions confirm this thinking. Microsoft has now completed the acquisition of Tellme Networks. The move represents a huge opportunity for Microsoft, says Forrester analyst Elizabeth Herrell. According to Datamonitor, worldwide sales for speech technology are more than $5 billion. Herrell expects that will only continue to explode.

More recently Nuance is in the process of acquiring Voicesignal Technologies. This will create an organization with broad resources, solutions and expertise that will satisfy the accelerating demand for speech-enabled mobile devices and services. Nuance expects to serve more than one billion consumers within the next three years with voice-based mobile solutions that allow people to simply and effectively navigate, retrieve and transact across the vast and growing universe of content and services available in mobile phones, automobiles and personal navigation devices.

Perhaps as a footnote, it should be clear that what works well in the mobile world can much more easily be applied in the static world. Voice recognition and speech technology can easily be applied to voice portals that you might access on your desktop PC. The same technology will see increasing application in the more successful call centers.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Tellme Shows The Power Of IVR

In this increasingly mobile world, IVR or Interactive Voice Response is a technology that will be getting more and more interest and effort. Tellme Networks is a company that clearly is one of the beneficiaries of that movement. If you haven't been aware of this company, just check their website to see what they do:

'Tellme helps you find the businesses you need every day. Powering nearly 40% of the US directory assistance (411) calls, Tellme lets you simply say the city, state and business and hear your results. Try it now on 1-800-555-TELL and say “Business Search”.

As an indicator of the importance of the Tellme mission, Microsoft has announced that it will acquire Tellme Networks for an undisclosed fee. Microsoft's release points to the importance they place on this technology.

'Microsoft and Tellme share a vision around the potential of speech as a way to enable access to information, locate other people and enhance business processes, any time and from any device. Combining Tellme's talented people and expertise in high-volume voice services with Microsoft's platform, resources and worldwide customer reach will inspire new and innovative solutions.'

Microsoft points to some of the interesting application areas:

'Potential areas of development resulting from the deal will range from hosted voice-enabled customer service solutions that complement Microsoft's existing unified communications offerings to voice user interfaces in existing Microsoft products to search services on mobile phones that integrate with Live Search for mobile offerings.'

The exciting aspect of this news item is that it will clearly put much more promotional clout behind the IVR revolution. As more callers expect to have their calls handled well, this creates an exciting potential for variants of IVR that can give a more satisfying caller experience. Crimsonet's Interactive Voice Response (IVR) will be a strong contender in this search for excellence.