Delivering On Its Promise

It probably shouldn't surprise me that on the day that Information Today Inc. acquired Speech Technology Magazine and its related products I was interacting with a speech-enabled interactive voice response (IVR) system. I was confirming an order with 1-800-flowers.com to buy a gourmet food basket for the family of a friend and colleague who recently lost a devoted father and husband. Because of the sensitive nature of this purchase, I wanted it to be treated with the care, sensitivity, and assurances that I thought only a human could provide. I've had plenty of good experiences with speech-enabled IVR systems, especially recently, but the importance of this purchase and the relative newness of the technology concerned me.

It was only a few years ago that because a speech application misinterpreted what I had said, I purchased stock, to my great chagrin, in a company I had never heard of. Not long afterward I witnessed an unfortunate gaffe at a SpeechTEK Conference in New York. I was a senior editor at CRM magazine at the time, covering customer service and contact centers. Industry pundits then claimed that natural language processing was too costly and time-consuming to master, due to the many nuances of speech. However, directed speech (where the speech application prompts callers to say one of only a few key words) was deemed far more accurate. I was ready to buy in.

When I entered the exhibit hall, I saw a familiar face light up. Eager to show me the capabilities of his company's latest speech technology application, an industry associate asked me over to a table where he demonstrated a system designed for an automotive repair shop. The system would prompt callers using a directed speech approach to repeat one of various choices presented to them, such as "oil change," "tune up," or "brakes." I played along, saying almost all of my directed speech options, but none was recognized. As the system consistently miscued, I truly felt sorry for my associate.

I've since had positive speech-enabled IVR experiences and have embraced the technology, but I couldn't quell the uneasy feeling I got during my 1-800-flowers.com interaction. My concerns peaked when the system required me to recite a 15-digit alphanumeric order-confirmation number while confirming my order. I sighed, expecting a problem. Blessedly, the system repeated the entire confirmation number exactly as I stated it. Afterward, the system also confirmed the order. I discovered that what the system lacked in sensitivity it made up for in capability and trust. I had had a positive customer experience.

Building a strong technological foundation is an important first step for any technology industry to succeed, and in this area speech technology consistently delivers on its promise. That the industry is moving beyond this step to incorporate more human characteristics will certainly improve its standing with customers. One such characteristic is respect, hence our cover story, "Ivy League IVR," by Melanie Polkosky. It offers tips on how to build respect into a speech-enabled IVR system.

Polkosky highlights the issue of customer respect and its importance even when one of the conversing partners is a machine. Polkosky says, "In this case, does the machine acquire status or power in relation to a human partner? Logically, perhaps the answer is no, but when the machine uses conversational markers that imply power, the psychological impact on the user/partner is similar to that in a more typical conversation. The perception of power occurs because our responses to speech and language are automatic and beyond our rational understanding of the interaction." She offers examples of how phraseology can affect perceptions of respect and she makes a compelling case for designing speech applications with respect for callers.

Customer respect isn't only limited to phraseology. Providing customers the option to speak with an agent is another form of respect, at least according to Paul English, who presented the keynote address at the SpeechTEK conference in August. English, the founder of the much publicized gethuman.com, which includes a list of secrets and codes to bypass speech enabled IVRs for a human, pleaded with industry professionals to design systems with the customer in mind. Not surprisingly, one of his suggestions was to make it easy for customers to reach a person. His message convinced Wes Hayden, president and CEO of Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, to respond. Hayden's article is titled "Is Paul English Right?"

There's no doubt that English has created some industry turbulence. The good news is that the industry has matured enough to warrant such attention and it will grow stronger because of it.

David Myron
Editorial Director

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