At Bell, Your Voice Is Your Password

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One of the worst ways to spend an afternoon is on the telephone, trying to reconcile a bill. What should be a quick transaction devours a huge block of time in which one is bombarded by prompts pleading for an account number, a PIN, and the name of the hamster he had as a child. In an age of enterprise mobility, remote authentication, and real-time responsiveness, this inefficiency is antiquated. Unfortunately, identity theft is not, so the inconvenience is necessary for determining a caller’s identity.

That’s why Bell Canada initiated steps late last year to reconcile call center efficiency with customer privacy and security. The carrier recently implemented the Voice Identification Service, powered by PerSay’s VocalPassword technology and Nuance Communications’ automatic speech recognition technologies. This implementation, which offers voice security across Bell’s landline, wireless, Internet, TV, and VoIP customer base, is said to be the largest text-dependent voice biometrics deployment in the world.

When customers sign up up for Bell’s Voice Identification Service, they are prompted to say At Bell, my voice is my password three to four times. This correlates each user’s voiceprint with the phrase, a two-factor, text-dependent approach traditional in speaker verification. Following entry into the Bell database, callers wanting to access their billing information need only repeat the phrase once. After a successful authentication, the system gives the caller access to a live customer service agent, who sees the positive identification via a desktop prompt.

"The live agent ensures that they’re talking to the right person at the right time," says Charles Giordano, marketing lead for Bell’s Voice Identification Service. "With technology, nothing is 100 percent fool-proof."

For instance, if an account has a co-user—say a husband and a wife—a voice biometrics system won’t distinguish between a male’s voice and a female’s. And if there are any questions surrounding authentication, certain alerts ensure the call’s termination.

Giordano emphasizes that the application allows customers access only to billing information, not ultra-sensitive financial data. "It’s limited to what you’d expect from a self-service standpoint," he says.

While other voice biometrics solutions were available, Bell officials were impressed at the speed with which PerSay implemented the application. PerSay redesigned the VocalPassword in 2004, adding more out-of-the-box features and taking into account the specific needs of the various departments involved in the integration, such as telephony, IT, customer service, and the system integrator.

That both Bell and PerSay had prior relationships with IBM, the integrator of the application, expedited the process.

Another factor that might have helped, according to Judith Markowitz, president of J. Markowitz Consultants, is that Bell had installed speaker biometrics in the past for internal applications. Thus, a familiarity and confidence with the technology already existed.

Ultimately, Bell selected the solution in September 2006 and had it fully implemented by mid-March. Still, the company had issues to face
prior to the system’s deployment. From a technological standpoint, both speech and speaker recognition still have a problem with noise—an issue that affects the entire telecommunications infrastructure. Performance over wireless, data, and VoIP channels needs to shore up to optimize the speech recognition capabilities crucial to voice biometrics. "And that’s going to be an issue until these networks become much better," Markowitz says.

Still, the accuracy level has improved markedly in recent years, which PerSay CEO Almog Aley-Raz cites as one of the reasons for the increased customer-facing deployments of voice biometrics. "Today you can take a system and integrate it very quickly," he says. "Do a controlled rollout and once you’re satisfied, open up the system to your customer base."

With Bell, it was particularly important for its databases to be in sync. The company operates multiple businesses, and a single customer’s identity often crosses those disparate business units. For recognition and verification to be successful, each database has to communicate with the others.

But the biggest issue Bell faced was customer acceptance. It was crucial that Bell conduct research to make sure the new system would fit with its customers’ perceptions of the company. While biometrics as a whole is detaching itself from old associations with invasions of privacy, and voice seems to people to be the least intrusive, Bell officials were still sensitive to the stigma.

In early tests, for instance, Bell had end users repeat their telephone numbers to access their accounts. Some callers balked at what seemed to be an invasion of privacy. Later the company tested the phrase Bell is my telecommunications company. "There were some thoughts that Bell was trying to mind-meld," Giordano says. "The focus group pointed towards vanilla-type phrases as most acceptable."

Since implementing the system, customer feedback has been uniformly positive and sign-ups have been steadily increasing. "Part of it is just customer education on our part," Giordano says, "letting them know this application does work and in order to enroll, they’ll need their account number."

Bell introduced the system by embedding its advertising in bill messages, within IVR intros, and in email correspondence to customers. Positive word-of-mouth also assisted with the service’s success.

Bell now boasts 16,000 sign ups per week, bringing the total to around 300,000, which is impressive by itself given the program is strictly optional and coexists with Bell’s traditional, more prompt-laden security solution. The opt-in enrollment takes roughly two minutes to complete.

That more customers are opting into the program bodes well for Bell’s call centers. With more subscriptions, Bell provides customers quicker access to agents and reduces average handling time for authentication. That has reduced its overall call center costs substantially.

Bell Canada is not the only large commercial deployment of voice biometrics. Within the past few years, voice security solutions were installed at AMH, an Australian healthcare services provider, and European bank ABN AMRO, though they were more scaled and less

"We are in the first stages of going into the mainstream," Aley-Raz says. "What I’m seeing in the next couple of years is many enterprises, financial services, telcos, and others adopting the technology for customer-facing deployments. You cannot argue with the fact that so many customers opt in without any proactive marketing. That says a lot about customer acceptance of the technology."

"It’s hard to get bigger than a national phone company," Markowitz adds, regarding Bell’s system. "Certainly the banking industry has been very active in starting to deploy [voice biometrics] due to some of the regulations they’re dealing with related to telephone banking."

In 2005, for instance, America’s Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) added recommendations for telecommunications companies aimed at protecting customers’ security and access to information. Responding to the global threat of identity theft, government regulations for verification systems increasingly require a two-factor solution.

Remote authentication channels are a weak point hackers can exploit. Why try to bust through the fortress wall when it’s easier to sneak through the door? The tightening of security through voice biometrics essentially adds another checkpoint. "Securing access to all aspects of personal information is becoming important to consumers as well as businesses," Markowitz says. It’s particularly important for Bell, which provides communications services in a country whose Telecommunications Act states as its final objective: "to contribute to the protection of the privacy of persons." 

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