Trouble Shooting With Speech

The repair line at Verizon receives over 50,000 calls per day in the Verizon East Region and over 100,000 nationwide. In the past, using a touch-tone service, these calls were automated at a rate of three percent. In an effort to improve customer service automation Dr. Judith Spitz, senior vice president of network & national operations systems, turned to speech. Now, every call to the Repair Center in Verizon East goes to an automated speech system, and 20 percent are completed without associate assistance. Verizon has been evaluating speech technology for more than 15 years. Recent success stories such as Amtrak's Julie combined with existing uses within its own corporate and operations settings helped convince Dr. Spitz that it was the right time for Verizon to try to apply the technology to the Repair application. With an aggressive program management that began in March 2003, this project, initially scheduled to take 14 months, went from design to development to deployment in just five months in order to reap benefits within the 2003 timeframe. After greeting a caller, the Verizon voice portal is capable of retrieving the customer's record, running a line test, checking and confirming appointment times, updating customer contact information and creating a trouble ticket. Over 10,000 calls are being automated daily made up of a combination of tickets being created, status checks and tickets cancelled. The system was put to an extreme test in September when Hurricane Isabel reached the East coast. More than 30,000 calls in a single day were completely automated. It also proved its value during the blackout last summer when calls to the repair centers skyrocketed and the system was able to handle the spike rather than put customers on hold. Dr. Spitz visited with the editors of STM to discuss Verizon's deployment. Speech Technology Magazine (STM) What was the genesis for Verizon deploying a speech solution for a customer care voice portal? Why had you not deployed this solution sooner?
Dr. Judith Spitz Verizon has been and continues to be very active in deploying speech solutions for customer care and other strategic voice portal applications throughout the company. We've had a corporate voice portal up for over two years, an operations voice portal running for over a year, call routing voice portals in the consumer call center space for over a year and consumer services based on voice portal services under development for several years now. Plans were already in place to expand each of these throughout the year. However, the plans were laid out on a 'business as usual' schedule. When the company began to look for new opportunities to improve customer service within 2003, we decided to take a shot at accelerating the repair voice portal program putting it on the fast track. STM How did you evaluate solutions providers?
Dr. Spitz Verizon IT has a software and hardware standards organization that continually evaluates what the marketplace has to offer, brings technology into our labs for evaluation and makes recommendations to the development portfolios. In the speech technology space, Verizon and its predecessor companies (NYNEX, Bell Atlantic and GTE) have been actively involved in evaluating the state-of-the art in speech technology since the late 80s, so this is not a new activity for us. In some cases, we settle on a standard quickly and deploy applications using a single vendor's product. In cases where we think the marketplace is evolving, we are lead users of several different products in order to get real field experience before we make a decision. In the case of customer care voice portals, we have a well-established infrastructure platform for call management on top of which several company's speech technology products are currently deployed. For this particular application, the Repair Resolution Centers, we knew that successful self-service was going to be a challenge from a customer satisfaction perspective. So the driving factor in picking a partner for this solution was their capability in providing best-in-class dialogue design. We knew, from many years of experience, that the dialogue in this application was going to make or break our success in the field. STM What were your implementation plans and how did they change?
Dr. Spitz We had an implementation plan for a voice portal to front-end the Repair Resolution Centers (and Service Order Inquiry Centers) that would have had us piloting the application in second and third quarter of 2003, with rollout expected to take 9-12 months after that. When we put the project on the fast track, we dramatically changed our schedule. We completed requirements and detailed call flow/dialogue design in February and March '03, completed development and testing in three months (April thru June) and deployed across the entire East footprint (three data centers servicing Maine to Virginia) in three weeks. STM Describe the architecture of the deployment.
Dr. Spitz The National Operations Voice Portal is deployed in an N-Tier architecture across three geographically diverse data centers. Within each data center a telephony layer implementing Cisco VoIP provides interconnection between the PSTN and VoiceGenie Gateway servers providing call processing, control and call flow execution. Off-board Automatic Speech Recognizers (ASRs) from ScanSoft provide graceful scalability for utterance recognition. Call flow logic and back-end legacy system middleware is provided by a clustered WebLogic application server platform. Out-of-band call control and data interchange with call center Automatic Call Distributors (ACDs) is facilitated through the common CTI framework supporting the Verizon East service network. Standard operations management capabilities are facilitated through the use of BMC Patrol as well as custom developed monitoring and analytic reporting tools. User Interface design was provided by ScanSoft. STM What has happened with large call volumes?
Dr. Spitz The system has held up extremely well with large call volumes. The application sits on the call path of every single call into the Verizon Repair Resolution Centers in the East footprint. Because we are using a VoIP architecture, we had some work to do to get what we call our 'port pooling' architecture optimally configured, but we were successful and the infrastructure has had no problems with handling volume. In fact, during some extraordinary weather events this past summer (e.g., Hurricane Isabel) where calls volumes into the centers skyrocketed to 300 percent of the normal load, the Voice Portal proved to be invaluable to the management team and to our customers. Instead of keeping customers queued for long periods of time waiting for the next available agent, the platform had no problem handling the increased volumes and absorbing the spike. This allows the simpler calls to be handled through automation - freeing the agents up to take the more complex ones. Our senior vice president of the Repair Resolution Centers said the voice portal proved its value many times over in that week alone. The same was true during last summer's blackout. Call volumes skyrocketed but customers were still able to get through. STM What were the goals Verizon wished to accomplish for this deployment? What have been the results?
Dr. Spitz From a throughput perspective, we set a target of 20 percent self-service for this application. Self-service is strictly defined as calls where the customer successfully gets through one of our transaction threads (trouble ticket creation, ticket status, ticket cancel or ticket hold) and never asks to speak to an agent. We were able to achieve that objective. STM What plans do you have for the future of this application? What do you see as potential roadblocks for on-going success with this deployment?
Dr. Spitz We have plans in place to extend the application to handle our Spanish-speaking customers as well as to roll the application out to the rest of the Verizon footprint, what we refer to as Verizon West, both in the 2004 timeframe. At the same time, we are moving forward with many other similar applications (the automation of all major transactions in the Retail Ordering Centers, the Data Trouble Resolution Centers, the Wholesale Call Centers as well as a number of internal applications for our Operations Workforce) to provide efficient access to data in backend systems. There are no real roadblocks to ongoing success with this deployment other than keeping our eye on the ball and remembering that the single most important element to success in applications like these is the dialogue design - the UI. Sometimes in our haste to get things out quickly or to implement new business rules and new features we can forget that. But the customers don't, and they react quickly and measurably to a poor user interface. They simply will not use it and our automation rates will tumble. We just have to keep remembering that premium customer service is the first and most important requirement. STM Discuss your customer experiences. Have there been any funny stories?
Dr. Spitz The customers reacted positively to this application from Day One. Our automation rates were high right from the beginning. Of course, as with any voice portal application, customers say the most incredible things. Let's remember that with 20 percent self service, 80 percent of the customers are NOT getting through the application. In our case, the statistics tell us that approximately 30 percent are dropping out for legitimate business rule reasons. So 50 percent of the callers are presumably trying to get through the call flow but cannot or will not for some reason. This is where you hear the unbelievable - dogs barking, horses neighing, three sentence answers to a 'yesno' question. In response to a prompt asking the customer to 'briefly describe the problem' saying something like "noise on my line," one person told us that if she knew what the problem was that she would fix it herself! You really can't make this stuff up. On the positive side, many customers say 'thank you' to the portal when they're done; that's how natural the interaction seems to many. STM What made this solution successful?
Dr. Spitz There were many elements that led to success. First, truly incredible partnering between almost a dozen internal organizations and five different vendors. Second, use of every technology possible to make communications between and among the team completely real time and constant. Finally, a well thought out and well designed user interface. This was and always is the key to a successful application. Without it, nothing else matters. The best speech recognition technology in the world, the best call management system ever built, the best back end integration possible will not make an application successful if the dialogue design is poorly done. STM What are your thoughts about speech and where the industry is headed?
Dr. Spitz This is an incredibly exciting time for the speech technology industry. I have been involved in it since 1986 and have never seen the enthusiasm for the technology within the corporate world as I see it now. In the late 80s the technology was really not quite ready for prime time and its capabilities were over sold to the user community. Buyers were left with a negative impression of what was possible. The Internet bubble redirected everyone's attention to Web portals and online transactions and gave the technology and the techniques of dialogue design a chance to mature. Now the attention has come full circle. With the focus on wireless technology everywhere, there is a renewed requirement for users to be able to interact with their systems even when they are not in front of their computers, using a simple telephone, and this is creating a new buzz around the use of voice portals. STM When you completed school where did you think the technology would be today?
Dr. Spitz I finished school in 1983 and the focus back in those days was on dictation systems. It was the Holy Grail for the technology. Speech algorithms were DSP/hardware based and so the work was focused on increasing the speed either with faster processors or smarter algorithms. With the task being large vocabulary continuous speech recognition, it seemed like it was going to be many years before we would see a dictation system ready for large scale consumer use. Of course, I don't think we envisioned that computers would become so pervasive and that using a keyboard would become a non-issue for the masses. I would say that 'filling out a form' (the most frequent application of a voice portal as a front end to a Web application) is the dominant task to solve for today from a commercial perspective; and to accomplish the task in a way that is natural and easy for the user.
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