The Experience of Voice

“Listen to the voice of experience!” So I’ve been told by my mentors dating back to kindergarten and on through graduate school. Here in the year of “Sideways,” let me strongly suggest to my readers that it will be much more productive if you “listen to the experience of voice,” and I’ll clarify that directive by saying that I’m not just referring to the so-called voice user interface (VUI). I’m talking about the elements up and down an enterprise’s IT infrastructure that contribute to high-quality, self-service transactions.

For callers to an enterprise contact center, the feel-good moment comes with the successful resolution of a query or (failing that) the timely transfer to a live person to complete a transaction. The factors that determine whether a call has been successful or unsuccessful have less to do with the accuracy of a recognition engine or the structure of scripted dialog and much more to do with how well automated speech is integrated with call-routing resources, corporate databases and business process logic.

Directory assistance (DA) platforms offer a marvelous case in point. Around the globe, providers of directory assistance (or directory enquiry in Europe) have been at the forefront of automated speech deployments. If you listen to the “voice of experience” among the old hands in DA automation, you’ll find that it’s all about cost savings. Each second that can be shaved off a high-volume, high-expense call delivers millions of dollars to the bottom line.

Listening to the “experience of voice” yields a totally different set of conclusions. From a DA caller’s perspective, the ultimate measure of satisfaction is successful resolution of queries. To achieve high levels of success, DA service providers have fine-tuned the interfaces between computer terminals and directory databases; between operator services platforms and computing infrastructures; and between communications front ends, like IVRs or media servers, and business logic.

Well-designed systems “know” how difficult it might be to resolve ambiguities arising from mispronounced names of oddly spelled streets or surnames and compensate by quickly transferring a call to a DA agent. The latest systems have replaced the rigid structured dialog that consists of “What city? What name?” with more “natural language” prompts that enable a caller to give a better accounting of his or her information needs. Open-ended greetings allow callers to ask for “just the address of Famous Joe’s Restaurant?” or “What time is the next showing of the Marx Brothers’ ‘Duck Soup’?”

Speech processing resources on the front end, closely linked to both routing software (preferably IP-based) and sophisticated database management resources, make it possible to accommodate increasingly complex queries either by resolving them in fully automated fashion or through intelligent transfer to a live agent. Under the “voice of experience” model, transferring to a live agent is regarded as a failure because the system failed to divert the call from ‘expensive’ live agents.

Under the “experience of voice” model, the caller’s experience is enhanced by the timely transfer of the call in the context of his or her real-time needs and information requirements. Both approaches employ voice processing extensively, but only one does it judiciously and in a way that benefits a caller. This sort of conversational DA is just starting to take shape. The earliest example, ATandT’s toll-free DA powered by Tellme, hoes a row that is pretty close to the original DA service by invoking callers to “just tell me the name of the listing you want.” (Because toll-free numbers are independent of geographic location, asking for the name of the city would be useless.)

The next step, of course, is to add customer care features to DA/DQ services. Think of Tellme meets Amazon or Google meets ScanSoft. The change, in turn, will bring new players into the domain of “assisted services.” Look for speech technology leaders like hosted-browser specialist Tellme and recognition engine suppliers ScanSoft, Nuance, Telisma, Loquendo and Infocom to join the search specialists like Google, Yahoo!, FAST Search and Retrieve, and others to leverage hybrid live agent and automated contact center operators like INFONXX, MetroOne and Excell Services to herald a more customer-responsive DA/DQ experience.

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