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.