Building Speech-Enabled Self-Service Automation for Seasonal Retail Contact Centers

The benefits of telephone-based, speech-enabled automation are being increasingly recognized by contact centers and other companies, and there are many companies that have taken advantage of this technology.  Speech-enabled telephone automation is known to reduce the cost of calls by as much as 90 percent compared with agent-assisted calls; speech also reduces the length of calls compared to touchtone applications by as much as 35 percent; and speech is preferred over touchtone systems by consumers (nine out of 10).

One group of businesses that has been slow to adopt speech technology is among those who have seasonal peak sales activity.  In particular, seasonal retail contact centers have unique and complex circumstances that make speech-enabled automation seem difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish and, as importantly, to be built in a manner that enables a reasonable return on investment (ROI).  Typically, sales are flattened throughout much of the year, with high peaks during certain business seasons.  Accordingly, staff must be continuously increased and decreased, with the concomitant training and supervision issues and costs.  Variable sales cycles place constraints on available revenue throughout the year.  This means that a system that is configured for peak capacity, yet is used at a minimum capacity for much of the year, may not provide needed benefits.  In addition, contact center management often perceives that certain customer services, such as placing an order, and other tasks, such as up-selling, can only be effectively handled by a live agent, not through any type of automation.

The HoneyBaked Ham Company Catalog Operations Division (HoneyBaked) dealt with these very issues when it recently and successfully implemented a speech-enabled IVR system from FutureCom Technologies.  Robert Karr, information systems communications manager of the division, describes their business cycle, "HoneyBaked has peak sales seasons in which most of our annual revenue is generated.  During the Christmas and Easter holiday seasons, we employ around 300 agents in our contact center.  During other times of the year, we employ a much smaller number of agents."  Recruiting enough qualified temporary agents for the peak seasons and providing training and supervision made this annual activity increasingly difficult, time-consuming, and costly.  HoneyBaked also found that the quality of agent interactions with customers varied considerably, with some interactions resulting in customer dissatisfaction and sometimes in lost sales.

"At HoneyBaked, we pride ourselves on our premium level of customer service, and we looked for ways to improve the customer quality of experience and offer expanded services," continued Karr.  HoneyBaked began investigating IVR in 1997 and implemented a basic touchtone application in 1998. Yet, they still needed to reduce operational costs.  They believed that speech-enabled automation would help them address these issues. In 2001, they began what would become a three-year, labor intensive investigation of speech-enabled IVR systems and applications, involving a search for information using the Internet, attending numerous conferences, interviewing many companies, and obtaining many quotes.  During this lengthy due diligence period, what they discovered was often discouraging. 

"Typically, we were presented with a pricing structure that was incompatible with our business cycle and with a high up-front investment that was followed by annual maintenance costs.  In addition, we found that there were significant costs associated with post-tuning of applications, which generally were unknown and variable, and which further impacted the ROI," said Karr.  Furthermore, the proposed manner of management of the hardware and software was inappropriate for their seasonal loads.  Finally, they became aware of a new approach to speech-enabled automation that made sense - even for businesses with variable revenue cycles.  "FutureCom was able to bring us a proven interactive voice response solution with a very broad suite of technologies to enable telephone-based automation for our current and future needs," stated Karr. "They demonstrated expertise that helped us optimize the use of technology while enhancing caller satisfaction, and offered a business model that significantly lowered the cost of acquiring and managing the IVR technologies."

HoneyBaked chose CommUnify, a software-based speech-enabled IVR platform that includes DTMF recognition, multilingual speech recognition, text-to-speech synthesis, fax, TTY/TDD, and e-mail, voicemail, and Web integration, all integrated on one system and developed by one company, FutureCom.  CommUnify has an IP-based client/server architecture that allows easy linear expansion of the platform and manages multiple applications on one system through real-time remote debugging and administration capabilities, which dynamically allocate channels and switch applications as appropriate, without disrupting service.  All features are available on all channels at all times, eliminating the need for channel configuration of different features. Prior to implementing this solution, HoneyBaked ran testing on the system, uncovering issues related to wording preferences in the script, such as providing spoken confirmation of information, and clarifying some confusing wording regarding locations of HoneyBaked stores within other stores.

"FutureCom helped to guide us in determining the appropriate services for speech-enabled automation, which is critical for success.  Their process allowed for easy, streamlined design, installation, testing, and deployment of the system and applications," said Karr.  HoneyBaked had the tasks that were managed by their agents analyzed and was able to implement the recommendations for automation of appropriate tasks.  Tasks that were relatively simple and standard in terms of the content of the customer/agent interaction were deemed likely initial candidates for automation, such as store location, order status, and catalog request.  In addition, tasks that were non-revenue generating were targeted initially, so that agents could be more available to assist customers with more complex transactions and to perform revenue-generating tasks.  Then HoneyBaked worked with FutureCom to determine a priority list for implementing the automated services.  Each company has different circumstances that affect this priority list, including budget, impact of other projects, company preference for agent usage, even the desire to establish an initial proof of performance of the technology, etc., and it's important to work together to discern the optimal automated task list and implementation schedule for each company.  HoneyBaked currently utilizes CommUnify to route all of the toll-free calls that come into its catalog call center and to automate the store location service.  Other services, such as frequently asked questions, order status, catalog request, and order entry, are being considered next for automation.

FutureCom's CommUnify Complete pricing plan made the implementation of this technology viable for HoneyBaked, according to Karr.  The plan aligned HoneyBaked's investment with the savings generated by the technology.  The result was an immediate positive ROI, the ability to self-fund additional self-service applications, plus a return of cost savings back to the business.  The solution includes everything HoneyBaked needed in the price at a fixed monthly cost - hardware, software licenses, application development, tuning, voice prompt recordings, ongoing monitoring, and support.  This approach allowed HoneyBaked to distribute the management and cost of their peak activity across the year in a predictable manner that could be managed in their budget. 

HoneyBaked's system managed 40 percent of their calls during this past Christmas season.  For the upcoming Christmas season, HoneyBaked is considering reducing the number of call center agents by a minimum of 20 percent.  This will result in at least 20 percent savings in their labor costs.  In addition, HoneyBaked realized increased opportunities for sales through 24/7 availability, increased accuracy of transaction management, and improved customer experience via a consistently pleasant "good day" voice.

Karr indicated that they are pleased with the near flawless implementation and ongoing performance of CommUnify and the applications. "With our speech-enabled IVR applications, we have been able to enhance customer satisfaction, optimize our productivity, and maximize savings," said Robert Karr. "CommUnify easily manages our calls, even during our peak call times.  The system has been completely reliable and has had no down time."

Contact Information:
Jeanne M. Gokcen, Ph.D.
FutureCom Technologies, Inc.
614-478-1978 (say "Jeanne")

Robert Karr
Information Systems Communications Manager
The HoneyBaked Ham Company, Catalog Operations Division

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