Speech Technology Magazine


Is Your System Talking at Callers or Communicating with Them?

The difference between what we say and what others hear has been a deterrent to effective communications since time began, even face-to-face.
By Peter F. Theis - Posted Jul 31, 2000
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The difference between what we say and what others hear has been a deterrent to effective communications since time began, even face-to-face. The problem increases when the communication is over the telephone and can become even worse when automated devices are used. What appears fine in a script for outgoing prompts may communicate nothing, the reverse of what the words say or even insult the caller. Here are some phrases commonly encountered with automated systems:
"Please speak clearly and distinctly."
"You can speak now."
"Say YES or NO."
A human being personally handling the call would not feel comfortable saying any one of those phrases. Nor would management want them to be used. Why, then, is the communication the caller receives different when the same words are spoken live as opposed to when spoken by a machine? Is the communication different? Does the listener react differently? What is spoken and what is communicated are not synonymous. The words spoken by one party and the communication associated with those words by a second party can be very different. While talk is an activity of only one person, the speaker, communication requires at least two people, the speaker and at least one listener. If a listener is hearing, but not listening, none of the spoken words may be communicated. How many times has someone said, "I told you that," to a listener and heard the reply, "You never did?" Obviously what was said did not register with the listener. It was spoken, but not communicated. For the telephone user, it should be the communication that matters, not just the words that are spoken. The problem is that on the telephone the speaker cannot see how the caller is reacting and does not get the same feedback as in face-to-face communication. The objective of speaking is to communicate a thought to the listener, but the communication includes a great deal more than what the spoken words alone convey, as every politician or actor knows. A famous writer may not always excel as a speaker. Radio actors often do not succeed as television actors. Studies have shown that less than 10 percent of what is communicated between people is conveyed through spoken words. Approximately one third of the communication results from the talk, but not the words themselves. Examples would include the sound of the voice, the intensity, the nervousness, the speed, the accent, whether the speaker is male or female and so forth. More than half of the communication is conveyed neither through the meaning of the words nor through their presentation. Such non-spoken, non-verbal communications in the context of a telephone call would include background noises, the caller's perception of a call center agent and the way a call is being handled. "Hi Ho Silver"
Consider the radio. Like the telephone, radio uses only voice. That leaves a lot of room for taking words out of context. Do radio listeners know what The Lone Ranger looked like? When a voice said, "Hi Ho Silver!" with whinnying in the background, the audience envisioned a masked man galloping off on a silver horse. The image of an elderly man in front of a microphone speaking those three words was not communicated. Only a small bit of the full communication is contained in the actual spoken words. The non-verbal spoken sound, the rise in the level of the voice, for example, communicates a great deal. How does this apply to the call center and how calls are answered, whether by a human agent or a speech recognition system? When a customer calls into a call center, he or she already has a perception of the call center and how the call is being handled. Many advertisements are specifically designed to establish an image by showing an attractive, smiling young woman wearing a headset. The image is abruptly shattered when the call is answered by a strongly accented or monotonous voice that "sounds like a machine talking." When a call is answered by a voice mail system and the caller is given a protracted selection of touch-tone menu selections, there is another very strong non-spoken communication to the caller. The clear automatic statement, "Your call is important to us," can instill a negative communication, the exact opposite of the clear meaning of the words. Evidence of this is the high proportion of callers who do not key in any response, knowing that an operator will answer. What happens to all those carefully thought out scripts prepared by the client and the ad agency and presented to the caller at the beginning of the call? They are spoken, but not necessarily properly communicated. Let the Caller Talk
So how can a machine communicate with a caller if there are so many variables in human-to-human communication? If the caller does not feel comfortable, the call is going nowhere. Any successful salesperson will confirm that if the prospect does not feel comfortable with the salesperson, there will be no sale. There is nothing you can do about that. It is hard wired into the human animal. Therefore, the machine must make the caller comfortable. The first thing to remember is: Do not pontificate at the caller's expense because the caller called to convey information to you. When your machine gives a lecture, the caller invariably closes his or her ears and waits for the chance to convey what he has on his mind, unless the caller hangs up first. Let the caller talk. He or she called to say something. When you answer a call live, do you talk for 30 seconds or more before letting the other caller speak? Of course not. It would be rude. So why have a machine doing the very same thing? Do not insult callers. Machines users assume they can impose their wishes on the caller with abandon, because the caller cannot fight back. The reasoning is that the machine can control the caller. This is a very negative communication. "Please speak clearly and distinctly" implies to the caller that he or she does not do either. For a speech recognition system or any communication technology device to be successful, it must convey a positive. It is destined for ultimate failure if it is imposed on the caller. Callers will tune out either by hanging up or not listening. The machine has no control over the caller, even if there are attempts made to dictate how he or she must reply. Intuitive voice processing communicates with callers using the same words a live agent would use. The rule to keep in mind is that if it can't be said live, then it shouldn't be said with a machine. That is the basis of the intuitive voice processing technology. Keeping that thought in mind can create a positive image for the caller. If properly programmed, the negative communications associated with machines in general can be avoided - even if the caller is told a machine is handling the call. Yields (completed calls as a percentage of total calls) using this technology usually exceed those obtained by live agents. It can be done, and it is done. The secret is communicating with, rather than talking to, the people who are calling. When programming an automated system, whether it involves speech recognition or not, the focus must be on the communication and not the words that are scripted. It may be clear to the programmer what the written words say but it should never be assumed those words, when spoken, convey the intended thought to the caller. Let the caller tell what is communicated. The scripting process should not begin by saying, "This is what we want to tell the caller." The process is properly started by saying, "This is what we need from the caller."
Peter Theis is the founder and president of Conversational Voice Technologies Corporation (ConServIT), an automated voice inbound telemarketing facility. The thought recognition controls systems used by ConServIT employ Theis' intuitive voice processing and gisting technologies. He can be reached at ConServIT Integrated Teleservices, 4205 Grove Avenue, Gurnee IL 60031, by phone at 800-343-2882 or at conservit@conservit.com.
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