Retailer Is Sold on Hosted IVR

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After dropping a few hundred dollars for a new high-definition plasma TV as an early Christmas present to himself, a customer carries the equipment home and sets it up, only to find that it doesn’t work. Frustrated, he calls the store where he bought it. After several failed attempts, he finally gets through, at which point the salesperson on the other end of the phone tells him that she can’t help with technical problems and he needs to call the TV’s manufacturer for assistance.

That’s not exactly the best way to start a customer relationship, but it aptly described many post-sales interactions between customers and Dixons Stores Group (DSG), an international computer, consumer electronics, home appliance, and high-tech gadgets retailer whose operations include 30 stores in Ireland under the Dixons, Curry’s, and PC World banners. As the technology industry in Ireland expands, the retailer plans to open more stores in the coming months.

"The worst thing you could do is call the store, find out you got the wrong number, and get rerouted to three or four other places before you’re helped," says Paul May, DSG’s service manager in Ireland.

DSG has since resolved the problem with the help of Northern Ireland-based speech technology vendor SpeechStorm, a division of Kainos Software, and its telephone service provider, eircom (a licensed SpeechStorm products and services reseller). SpeechStorm and eircom partnered to provide the retailer with a better way to handle the roughly 56,000 calls it receives each month.

In September 2006, DSG installed a single telephone number across all of its business areas in Ireland, consolidating all incoming calls into a single location. Previously, most customers called their local stores, and more than half of those calls "were unnecessary because the stores couldn’t help," May admits.

That’s why the retailer installed SpeechStorm’s Information Line call- steering application. Assisted by speech recognition technology from Nuance Communications, Information Line asks the reason for the call. Callers navigate by voice through a series of interactive menu options; keyword spotting assists the application in routing calls.

The application also allows Dixons to deliver information, such as in-store special sales, store locations and hours, and service or delivery appointment confirmations, over the phone using speech synthesis or prerecorded voices.

"We wanted to streamline the whole system, get customers to their destinations as quickly as possible, and remove a lot of this unnecessary call volume from the stores," May says.

"Within six weeks after going live, we took 60 percent of the calls out of the stores," says Brendan McCarthy, SpeechStorm’s director in Ireland. "It was quite a leap for Dixons."

May estimates that because DSG took that leap, the retailer has freed the equivalent of 13 to 16 full-time salespeople working 39-hour weeks from phone duty. "We’ve taken that out and freed them to deal with in-store customers, as opposed to picking up the phone and saying ‘I’m sorry, but this isn’t the number you need to call,’" he says.

"From a business point of view, it’s paid for itself because the amount of time store employees spent on the phone has been replaced with time on the floor selling products. People in the stores are just dedicated to selling.

"The store employees were happy from the start. The staff bought into it right away," May adds.

Customers, many of whom had grown accustomed to talking to a salesperson at the store, took a little longer to get used to the automated system. They warmed up to it, though, once they began to realize that the system had very high recognition success rates, their calls were being routed to the right person on the first try, and their issues were being resolved, May says.

A component of the application allows the system to take back a call if it is not answered within 15 seconds. As a result, call abandonment rates and holding times have dropped dramatically, while call completion and issue resolution rates have soared.

Without Additional CapEx
Because SpeechStorm and eircom  provide the solutions to DSG on a hosted, on-demand basis, the retailer didn’t have to spend a lot of money on expensive additions to its existing in-house switchboards or other hardware. The hosted model also takes the tasks of continual maintenance, updating, and performance tuning out of DSG’s hands, and has enabled the retailer to achieve faster time to market and lower costs. DSG pays for the service on a per-call basis every month.

SpeechStorm’s application is VoiceXML-based and built on the Genesys Voice Genie platform from Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories. The application’s Web-based graphic user interface, called assistDashboard, allows DSG to build and control its own prompts, call flows, and call routing pathways through SpeechStorm’s Web portal.

A reporting suite in assistDashboard provides DSG with a way to granularly map, log, and analyze the calls coming in, and provides visibility into the number of calls processed each day, week, or month. "It’s taken the complexity out of managing call flows. The stores know exactly how many calls they are getting and what is generating those calls, and they can respond accordingly," SpeechStorm’s McCarthy says. "They also get a faster speed to go live because they’re able to change and tune the system in near-real time."

"The good thing about SpeechStorm is that we have many possibilities and can roll them in easily if needed," May adds. "What makes it work so well is the flexibility. It’s Web-based, so we can make changes pretty quickly. Because our products and customers are always changing, we can swap things out between call centers quickly."

That was an important factor in DSG’s choice of the SpeechStorm application, especially now that the retailer is considering adding a multilingual option to its phone system to accommodate Ireland’s growing multilingual immigrant population. "We’re also looking at an additional touchtone option because there are a lot of problems with system recognition of other languages and accents," May says.
The retailer is also considering  adding to the sales portal on its Web site, something May hopes will eventually take even more sales calls out of the existing phone system.

Those options, though, are probably "down the road a way because the population [in Ireland] is still shaping itself," he maintains.

"We’re only starting our journey with Dixons," McCarthy adds.

But already the speech solutions at DSG have gained international attention. In October, the retailer was shortlisted as a finalist for a 2007 Inspired IT Award in Retail, Distribution and Manufacturing. The award, handed out each year by IT networking firm BT and iReach, an Irish research and market intelligence company specializing in technology, media, and telecommunications, acknowledges the role of IT managers and their teams in creating business value and competitive advantage through the use of IT.

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