Speech Technology Magazine

Remember Me?

IVRs can—or at least should—develop memories when it comes to past and present interactions.
By Adam Boretz - Posted Jul 14, 2009
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Lately, I feel like my most considerate, caring, and attentive  friend is the Internet. When I go online, the Internet always remembers me. The Internet is attuned to my needs, wants, desires, preferences, and habits. The Internet really gets me.

When I go to Amazon.com, the site greets me in a friendly, respectful manner—Hello, Adam F. Boretz—and immediately recommends some books it thinks I might like: The Collected Stories of William Faulkner, The Stranger by Albert Camus, Running with Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs. And Amazon.com isn’t done yet: I can look at my recently viewed items, monitor orders that are open, check  orders that have recently shipped, and update my Wish List.

The same thing happens when I visit bankofamerica.com. The site offers up all of my accounts, tells me my balances—sad, piddling sums—allows me to make transfers, helps me pay my bills, and remembers what bills I paid last and to whom.

The experience is identical at many of my other Web site friends: When I go to NewYorkTimes.com, Weather.com, or Netflix.com, the sites remember me, care about me, and always offer me a personalized, contextualized experience.

So if this kind of personalized experience is not only possible but prevalent and the accepted norm on the Internet, why is my average interaction with an interactive voice response (IVR) system so unfriendly, cold, distant, and impersonal? Why is calling my phone company or cable provider like talking with that creepy distant uncle I see only once a year at family reunions: a few obligatory grunts, an awkward silence, and a parting of company?

Why don’t companies offer more personalized and contextualized IVRs? Isn’t it possible? Isn’t it better? Doesn’t it make more sense?

According to Daniel Hong, lead analyst at Datamonitor, it is possible. Personalized IVRs are out there. They’re just not that prevalent yet. “That’s still new,” says Hong, who estimates that less than 5 percent of all IVR ports now have some degree of personalization. “I don’t think that there are that many deployments now live.”

However, Hong is quick to point out that varying degrees of personalization are beginning to occur within IVRs—everything from dynamic applications that look at customer behaviors and patterns to less sophisticated systems that simply recognize a caller’s phone number and greet her by name.

“It depends on the integration; it depends on the applications,” he adds, noting what he sees as a progression of IVR technology from touch-tone to speech to outbound IVR to personalization. “I think it’s kind of the next step.”

Cost Is Key

But if it is possible and if it represents the next step, then what’s the hold-up? According to Hong, the sticking point is—not surprisingly—the cost. “High levels of integration and customization made it cost-prohibitive,” he says.

Sheila McGee-Smith, president and principal analyst at McGee-Smith Analytics, agrees with Hong’s assessment.

But despite the ever-present cost issue, she sees progress on the road to personalization, noting that the move toward Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) technology has enabled a structure where one voice portal can manage multiple contact centers—which then dovetails with this notion of personalization and contextualization because it allows companies to present a single, unified voice to their customers.

“Now in a voice portal, SIP network world, you can have one place for all of those calls to come, where you can have the opportunity now to brand and offer  personalization based on dipping into a database,” she says. “To the extent that you centralize your self-service experience for customers, it gives you the opportunity to do personalization and contextualization.… There is an underlying architectural change in self-service that helps enable this.”

And, like Hong, McGee-Smith sees varying levels and stages of personalization and contextualization.

“There are levels of this.... The building blocks are being put in place to allow people to continually increase the level to which they do this,” she says, noting that companies must first take that architectural step toward personalization.

“Personalized VUIs—we’re a long way from that,” she adds. “If I call into AT&T Wireless, my preference would be an IVR switch that has a female New York accent. We’re far away from somebody saying, ‘Who is Sheila McGee-Smith, and what does she want to hear?’ Or saying ‘She really likes Irish accents. Let’s throw one of those at her.’”

Nancy Jamison, a market analyst at Jamison Consulting, offers a different perspective on personalization, pointing out that the technology is pretty basic and suggesting the problem lies with companies not using it appropriately.

“So where personalization comes in is in tying the user interface in the application with the data to personalize the experience for you,” she says. “So if you think about the Web, and you think about an agent, and you think about an IVR application with voice, they should be able to do the same things.”

Jamison even takes issue with the notion that personalized, speech-enabled IVRs are cost-prohibitive, citing cost avoidance and the high price of live agents.

“The costs would be in developing the application, which is not necessarily any more expensive,” she says. “It depends on how complex you want it. Then what’s happening is they’re accessing the same data.… The same thing is happening. The IVR ports are like agents. So when that VUI answers the phone—that artificial agent answers the phone—it is accessing the exact same screen of information that an agent would.

“You pay for that application pretty quickly. So it’s not any more expensive to personalize,” Jamison adds. “In the long run, you’re going to save money.”

Safe and Secure

Jamison cites improved security via voice authentication or voiceprint analysis as another benefit of personalized IVRs, noting that it’s easier to trick an agent than it is to hack an IVR. “As for security, you can’t sweet talk your way around security questions in a speech-driven IVR,” she says.

As an example of the untapped potential of personalized IVRs, Jamison cites a recent experience she had with a contact center agent—an experience she says should be possible via a speech-enabled IVR.

Jamison uses a service called Replacements Ltd.—which purchases and houses millions of pieces of china in warehouses and then sells them to people who need to replace a broken piece from a specific set. As a customer, Jamison set up her own watch list via the company’s Web interface, and once a week receives an email updating her on the status of her list and available pieces she may want to purchase.

“So this is combining customer service and the Web,” she says, explaining that recently she got an email about two pasta bowls she wanted, called the company’s toll-free number, and was greeted by name by an agent who asked her if she was calling about the pasta bowls. She said yes. The agent asked her if she would like to purchase both of them and if she would like to use her card on file. After hanging up, Jamison received an email confirming her purchase.

“Personalization using a VUI should be the same interaction,” she says. “Personalization is taking information that you know about the caller from a previous call history or previous buying history that you have stored in databases and personalizing the interaction if you know who’s calling.”

Another component of personalization  Jamison cites is the ability to adjust to a customer’s behavior on the phone—speeding up if a customer typically speaks fast, slowing down or giving more prompts if a customer is struggling, or offering abbreviated prompts if an experienced user skips over the initial greeting.

“There are companies that have come out…and done things that will adapt to the caller so it’s an adaptive interaction,” she says. “There are a number of companies within speech recognition that are doing things to actually improve the speech that we use in the applications. And then there are vendors, like the IVR contact center vendors, who use that technology and change the application to personalize it.”

Making Strides

Companies working to improve personalization through a number of different initiatives and areas include Convergys, Syntellect, Voxify, Nuance Communications, Interactive Digital, and Microsoft, according to Jamison.

And while Hong may be more conservative in his assessments, he also sees some movement toward increased personalization, with some companies making strides in personalization. He cites Convergys, Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, and Voxeo—which recently purchased VoiceObjects—as major players in the space.

According to Michael Codini, managing director and chief technology officer at VoiceObjects, personalization—which, he says, needs to be viewed on a wide spectrum—is all about providing a better user experience.

As such, the company offers enterprises a number of features to deliver an improved customer experience, including:

  1. Adapt to Caller, which not only recognizes what users say but the way in which they say it. The solution even repeats phrases in the same manner as callers do—for example, if a user says L.A. instead of Los Angeles, so does the system. And Adapt to Caller, which Codini describes as a “phone cookie,” also remembers user speech patterns in subsequent calls.
  2. Adapt to Experience, which takes into account user experience levels, adapting to better serve first-time, novice, experienced, and power users.
  3. Adapt to Subscription, which structures menus and call flows to reflect customer subscriptions and product use.
  4. Adapt to Business Rules, which allows companies to use specific sets of rules and guidelines for customer interaction and service.
  5. Proactive Service, which remembers a transaction history from a self-service perspective, checking previous transactions, looking for patterns, and using that information to drive transactions.

“It’s really business rule-driven at the end of the day and intelligent through the data that you start to collect,” Codini says. “And the Web does this already.”

Also leading the way in personalization is Convergys, which offers its Dynamic Decisioning Solution (DDS), an enterprisewide policy management solution that accesses business systems like billing and customer relationship management.

Key to DDS is the solution’s ability to personalize service in real time, according to David James, director of solutions marketing at Convergys. “It’s able to do these decisioning rules on the fly. When you’re in the IVR, and you’re entering your number, it’s pulling up real-time data from billing, CRM, or any of the legacy systems that you have,” he says. “We position it as an enterprise platform, whether that’s your Web site, your kiosk, your IVR, your call center, your ATM machine, or your retail point-of-sale terminals. Any place where that customer is interacting with your company, DDS can be present.”

Bypassing Menus

To illustrate DDS’s capabilities, James points to a bank that was experiencing a surge of calls at the beginning of each month from senior citizens checking on the status of their Social Security deposits. To combat this problem, the bank instituted DDS and integrated it with the IVR and banking systems.

With DDS, the bank can now provide those callers with the information they need at the beginning of the call. If a caller is 62 or older, and the call is being placed between the first and seventh of the month, the IVR notifies the caller about the date and amount of the Social Security deposit.

“It completely bypasses the agent, completely bypasses all the IVR menus they have to go to,” James says. “And so we were able to see 90 percent call containment within the IVR. It sounds simple—there are a lot of integrations that have to be done—but something like that really moves the bottom line when you can save hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

At Genesys, the main push toward personalization comes in the form of the intelligent Customer Front Door (iCFD), which, unlike a traditional IVR, combines customer data from across an organization with business logic to create a more personalized customer experience.

According to Mayur Anadkat, senior product marketing manager at Genesys, personalized IVR—which he says has received a lot of lip service from the industry—actually presents an opportunity to change public perceptions about speech technology. “The public has been beating us over the head with the notion that this product does not work for us,” he says. “What’s holding it back is definitely the perception of what an IVR is really for. It’s really believed [to be] just a cost-deflection device, and we’re trying to change that.”

Anadkat is optimistic about the possibility of changing those perceptions. “What has changed now, at least within the IVR realm, is we’re definitely seeing an opening up of the back end and the front end of the IVR so that it’s never necessarily treated as a stand-alone thing anymore,” he says, noting a colleague whose favorite phrase is “We are now at the death of the stand-alone IVR.”

According to Anadkat, the concept behind iCFD involves using the first interaction with the customer (and maybe one or two questions) to determine the reason for the call, and then relying on rich back-end integration to drive the rest of the interaction.

“Bring in some data, bring in some logic, and then make a decision,” he says. “So you have a combination of intent plus context.”

Anadkat says the key is being able to ask a customer, "Are you calling about X?"

“That’s really the state you want to be at, which is, ‘I know enough about you and what you’ve done recently to ask you that,’” he adds. “That, to me, is the ideal state.”

Slight Variations

According to Anadkat, Genesys currently has about 15 customers—including two major airlines in Europe—using some form of iCFD, which he says offers enterprises a “phased approach” to personalization.

Genesys even has a deployment of iCFD that delivers personalization to a touch-tone system. Belgacom, Belgium’s main telecommunications service provider, wanted to improve efficiency and customer service so it  turned to iCFD (the company calls it Dynamic IVR internally) to make every interaction with customers unique.

“They’re not doing the typical tree—five to 10 questions everyone gets,” Anadkat says. “There’s a lot of dipping and a lot of rules after every single question.”

Anadkat calls this the “nirvana stage” where you have a centralized rules engine that can abstract regardless of what interaction channel has come in. It then dips into the customer view to get the context all teed up, and then allows the most personalized interaction. “That’s the goal,” he says. “There are certain steps along the way that we can take that 90-plus percent of folks are not doing and get them up at least a level.”

He cautions, though, that not everyone at the outset needs to be at that nirvana state of iCFD. “They’re coming from different businesses,” he says. “All of these things are very dependent on their business. Each deployment is slightly different.”

Tellme is another company working to create more personalized and contextualized IVRs—something which Abhi Reli, the company’s senior manager in marketing for business solutions, sees as a means to provide faster service, reduce customer frustration, reduce costs, and boost customer loyalty and satisfaction.

“There are benefits both to the client as well as to the person who is calling it,” Reli says, pointing to personalized systems Tellme has created for American Airlines and Domino’s Pizza.

For American Airlines, Tellme developed a complete speech-based solution that makes use of the company’s Remember Me solution—an offering that, like its name indicates, remembers key information about customers.

With Remember Me, when a user who has booked a flight with American calls the IVR, the system automatically presents him with information about the booked flight before delivering any standard message or greeting.

“When you call American, it actually looks at where you are in the travel cycle, and it provides you information proactively about the stage that you’re in,” Reli says. “So it gives you information that you’re most likely to seek.”

Reli says the system—which looks at and integrates with other channels and gets information from the back end—is not constraining. “It gives them the flexibility to ask for these other services or even opt [out] to an agent if they need to,” he says. “It has the flexibility to give them information that they need.”

According to Reli, American has seen a 26 percent reduction in abandoned calls and significantly faster task completion for flight information requests since adopting the solution.

For Domino’s, Tellme created a system that manages ordering for the Web, mobile phones, and landline phones. The solution syncs the Web and phone channels, remembers customers’ past orders, and offers cross-sell and upsell  options to returning customers.

“[Domino’s] found for people who placed an order and then called in, about 75 percent of those people were calling to check the status of that order that was just placed,” Reli says. “We proactively give them information about that order status. They don’t need to learn about the system. They don’t need to learn about how to get to that information. It’s given to them up front.”

And again, the results have been impressive. Twenty-five percent of calls are either fully or partially automated, and the calls that do go to an agent are seeing 20 percent to 30 percent reductions in talk time.

In looking to the future of personalization and contextualization of IVRs, Reli—like most vendors and analysts—is optimistic. “You’ll definitely see personalization evolve as technology evolves and as different channels evolve,” he says. “You will see solutions that include more than one channel…. You’ll see much more sophistication in the way these personalized solutions work and their ability to integrate with back-end systems. [They’ll] be much more customer-focused and be aware of different channels.”

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