A Matter of Time

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With more than 250 stores in England, Scotland, and Wales, plus a considerable online and telephone shopping business, Comet is one of the United Kingdom’s largest electrical appliances retailers. The company, which rang up nearly $3 billion in sales last year, offers a range of additional services, including home delivery, installation, and comprehensive after-sales service, all of which have made it a household name in the U.K. 

In the past, the retailer offered multiple ways for its customers to contact it: They could visit the stores, send an email (the retailer promises to do all it can to ensure a response within 24 hours), place a phone call, send a letter, or enter a live chat via its Web site. However, faced with new market conditions, increasing competition, and changing customer expectations, the 76-year-old chain needed to do something different with regard to its customer service offerings if it were to maintain its leadership position. So a year ago, it introduced an automated self-service system to handle customer calls related to delivery confirmations and store locations. The Customer Information Center, located in Hull, England, handled all customer care, sales support, business-to-business, Internet sales, and home shopping calls with live agents.

Keeping a close eye on the needs of its customers was foremost in Comet’s mind when it chose U.K.-based SpeechStorm to provide the phone self-service solution. But unlike so many other speech-enabled interactive voice response (IVR) system installations, Comet’s deployment was not motivated by a desire to direct calls away from the call center. Rather, the IVR was installed to give customers who want self-service that option and the resulting benefits of speed and 24-hour service. 

“We didn’t do it as a cost-saving exercise,” says Simon Parkinson, general manager of the Customer Information Center at Comet. “We did it more for the customers’ benefit, and any savings we get we put right back into the customer service area.”

The application uses the power of speech technology, but also offers a familiar touch-tone interface and the option to talk to a live agent if preferred. In addition to the real-time delivery of information, customers can also receive their requested information via text message.

“The rule that we’ve set for ourselves is never to make anything mandatory. If the customer is not comfortable with the IVR, he can go to an agent,” Parkinson says. “We do not want to jeopardize the customer journey with us.”

Many customers have thus far embraced the IVR. To date, roughly 350,000 calls, including more than 80 percent of delivery inquiries, have gone through the IVR. 

Comet’s call center handles roughly 7 million calls a year, but Parkinson does not see the 350,000 that are going to automation as an insignificant amount. “The IVR filters out the quicker calls and leaves behind the more complex calls,” he says. “And then there are some people who will never use automation no matter what.”

The types of calls being handled by automation “are really important to the customer, but they’re not things that we need to put an agent in front of them for,” he says. 

Time Well-Spent

By taking those calls out of the agent queue, the speech application is freeing agents to handle more time-consuming, high-value calls. “It allows us more quality time for the people who need more help from us,” Parkinson says. “Our call duration has actually gone up, but we wanted it to go up because that means that we are providing better service and making sure that our customers are completely satisfied and don’t need to call us back.”

Parkinson expects the number of callers going the automated route to increase as customers become aware of and familiar with the IVR. So far, “the callers that have chosen automation are using it with ease, and our surveys tell us they enjoy and like it,” he says.

Comet first made the decision to go with an IVR in the spring of 2008 and began its search for a vendor that May. “We’re very conscious of the customer journey, and speech seemed to fit our profile,” Parkinson says. “Speech has adapted to the point where people are a lot more comfortable with it. And it’s quite adaptable today.”

Listening to some of the calls, people don’t act like they’re talking to a machine, he quips.

Nonetheless, adaptability was one of the main reasons Comet chose SpeechStorm, a unit of IT consulting and systems integration firm Kainos, as its IVR vendor. “From our first meeting, we knew that we could partner with SpeechStorm. Quite simply, they knew what they were talking about, were frank and open, and were able to support all of our requirements, both now and in the future,” Parkinson recalls. “That early synergy is vital if the partnership is to work long term, and SpeechStorm has demonstrated that same focus on a strategic partnership.”

Speed of deployment was another reason for selecting SpeechStorm. With the Christmas holidays fast approaching, Comet wanted to have something in place rather quickly, and SpeechStorm was able to deliver.

“There were not really a lot of hurdles,” Parkinson says proudly. “We knew we would have to tune some locations and adjust some location names. We knew that for four to six weeks after installation we’d have to tweak for geography, and we built that into [the timetable].”

Another area where Parkinson expected to have trouble was the many accents and dialects throughout the U.K., but that turned out to be a nonissue. “The application worked far better than expected,” he says. “SpeechStorm did quite a bit of work to make sure that it would not be a problem. It helps that SpeechStorm is based in the U.K. We’re dealing with people who understand and can deal with all the U.K. dialects.”

Comet has been so comfortable with SpeechStorm that it plans to again enlist the vendor when it expands its self-service options. Moving forward, Comet plans to add survey, outbound, and credit card acceptance applications to its speech portfolio. These are applications that the retailer had considered but wasn’t ready to install last year.

“Comet’s focus on providing first-class customer service has certainly paid off in its approach to phone self-service solutions,” comments Roger Chidwick, sales and marketing director at SpeechStorm. “We now look forward to replicating that customer care success across other parts of the business with our comprehensive portfolio of phone self-service solutions.”

“We felt quite comfortable going with SpeechStorm, and that’s never been a decision that we’ve regretted,” Parkinson says.

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