Vodafone Australia Moves Prepaid into the Speech Realm

Whether stepping onto a bus or off the Metro, there is one item that never fails to be in use - a cell phone or similar device.  People around the world use cell phones, personal digital assistant (PDA) computers and other handheld devices to communicate using speech.  It has been estimated that 115 to 157 million mobile phone units were sold around the globe in the second quarter of 2004.  PDA computers came in at about 2.75 million units for Q2 of 2004. 

Vodafone Takes Top Honors for Best Practices Deployment

ScanSoft, Inc hosted its fifth annual Best Practices Competition for 2004, which recognizes companies whose SpeechWorks Solutions speech applications demonstrated improvements in customer satisfaction and measurable results for return on investment.

The Best Practices Competition is open to all ScanSoft end-user customers and its partners' customers. Applications in limited deployment or trial are not eligible to enter the Best Practices Competition. Participating applicants were required to submit case studies that outline the decision-making process and speech project implementation. Participants were judged by a panel of industry experts, which included Dan Miller, partner and senior analyst at OPUS Research; John Kelly, publisher and editor-in-chief of Speech Technology Magazine and several ScanSoft executives and experts.

Leading the pack in the Best Practices Competition, Vodafone was selected as the Global Best Practices winner for their self-service solution, Lara. Vodafone is the first winner to be located outside of North America. Their application was developed in cooperation with Dimension Data, ScanSoft, Holly and Audium. Lara's initial purpose was to register pre-paid customers by collecting personal information and assisting the customers with the activation of their accounts. Independent studies show that nearly 75 percent of Vodafone users reported a positive caller experience.

In a close second receiving the Most Innovative Solution award, Verizon's National Voice Portal (NVP) speech-enabled 45 different customer service transaction types. NVP has automated more than 1.3 million calls to Verizon Repair Resolution Centers, which is nearly 60 percent of all calls. With the speech-enabled application in place, self-serve selection rates increased by 16 percent, data capture rates increased 29 percent and self-serve completions increased by six percent.

Finalists for the Best Practices Competition included Virgin Mobile USA recognized for Best Premium Services and SBC Communications for Breakthrough Use of Technology. Virgin Mobile's Pay as You Go wireless services, which target the younger markets, used speech to enable customers to register payment and credit card information by voice in about five minutes or less. Other new services include: coverage check for activation, device serial number entry, vKey (PIN code) creation for activation and a store locator. The Pay as You Go speech solution reduced the number of calls to live operators by almost 50 percent. Also commended for speech-enabling their customer care solution, SBC Communications replaced their existing DTMF-based call routing application with the speech-enabled Automated Call Router. The Automated Call Router directs callers to the appropriate agent or application by determining the customer's purpose for calling. Nearly 70 percent of customers reported having a better experience with the speech-enabled solution versus the touchtone application.

Other customer award winners included: Telstra, recognized for Speech Vision; India Times, for Customer Reach; and The Hartford, recognized as an Industry Pioneer.

The top two winners, Vodafone Australia and Verizon, were awarded: $20,000 worth of SpeechWorks speech recognition or TTS software licenses, a trip for one (including a spouse or guest) to Conversations 2004, an opportunity to serve as a jurist in next year's Best Practices Competition, and industry acknowledgement of accomplishments - including a trophy or plaque.

With competitive wireless service providers offering cheaper plans with increased minutes backed by free nights and weekends, it would seem that prepaid services are a thing of the past.  However, with 19 million prepaid mobile users in North America alone, the prepaid services are climbing.  The credit checks, upfront fees and various other qualifications are driving users ever closer to the option of prepaid services.

For Vodafone, delivering wireless services via mobile technology is more than key to the company's survival - it is imperative.  Vodafone focuses solely on providing mobile technologies to clients worldwide.  It is the parent company of Vodafone Australia, which has more than 2.5 million mobile customers in Australia.  Operating a GSM digital network that covers 92 percent of the Australian population, Vodafone Australia sought to automate customer care using speech recognition.  Targeting their Prepaid Mobile Activation/Registration, they created "Lara," a speech enabled self-service application.

Developed in cooperation with Dimension Data, Vodafone Australia implemented Lara to register their prepaid customers.  Lara is the first brand touch for customers who call in from their new SIMS to activate their prepaid account.  Lara walks the customer through the activation process and if any difficulties arise along the way, she transfers the customer to a live operator for further assistance.

Prior to implementing Lara, Vodafone Australia's main challenges in the contact center revolved around predicting call volumes.  Unable to foresee peaks and valleys in call flow made it increasingly difficult to provide customers a continuously high level of customer service.  A dedicated team of agents handled all incoming calls including the prepaid registrations. The repetitive basic inquiries centered on prepaid activation with callers giving information such as name, address, credit card number and amount to charge to the phone. 

In an effort to automate this process, Vodafone Australia looked at installing a touchtone IVR system. They received strong, negative comments about touchtone applications from their customers over a six-month research period, and evaluated the complexity of the registration process versus the capabilities of the IVR.  The conclusion was that the touchtone IVR was not suitable to their goals.  They wanted a solution that would scale when required so that customers would not be inconvenienced when the system was connecting large numbers of callers at the same time.

The goals for this system were to increase customer volume without driving up operating costs, provide great value bundles for customers, and look at smarter ways to provide these services while passing the savings on to the customers.  With customer satisfaction as its main driver, Vodafone Australia wanted its first touch with customers to be extremely branded but also balanced by a persona that offers customers a great experience.

Vodafone Australia worked with its managed services partner, Dimension Data, to implement a speech-enabled system developed in conjunction with ScanSoft.  Vodafone Australia decided to provide their own in-house platform that allowed for a complex integration into their own contact center systems, such as Siebel Systems and Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories.  The architecture chosen for the in-house Voice Response Unit (VRU) was a client/server approach that enabled Vodafone Australia to deploy a distributed architecture nationally, therefore providing a high level of availability.  Holly Voice Gateway was chosen, using an Aculab telephony (E1) interface on a Sun Unix platform.  Audium was selected as the intergrated development environment for VoiceXML for the system. Vodafone Australia's rationale for taking this direction related to having an open-standards development environment that would not tie them to any particular platform, but rather allow them to have application portability and the potential to share the development and integration components with other Vodafone OpCos.

Seeking a solution with the potential for significant cost reduction coupled with the opportunity to improve customer service by having no queue times, a consistent experience and a friendly persona, Vodafone Australia deployed the speech-enabled system, Lara.  Lara started taking switchboard calls in September of 2003 before moving in to take prepaid registration calls in May of 2004.  Her first assignment in the switchboard was a chance for Lara to engage internal customer feedback, to educate callers on the system, to ensure correct delivery partners and to provide internal employee support.  She would then be assigned to take basic customer information, to activate prepaid accounts, and assist the live agents with various other simple customer issues.

Customers' first calls made with a newly purchased SIM are automatically routed to Lara, who greets them and talks them through the registration process in about five minutes.  If Lara incurs difficulty assisting the customer, she then transfers them to a live operator.  This frees up live operators to assist customers with more complex issues or inquiries, moving the calls for basic services away from the call center and cutting back on live operator time and cost.  She has now completed 70,000 registrations since her launch and she makes calls to the call center 20 percent shorter with partial registration. She is available 24 hours per day, seven days per week, and 365 days per year.

Vodafone Australia deemed it crucial for Lara to portray the appropriate persona when connecting with customers.  Lara needed to represent Vodafone Australia's global brand as well as their local values.  Vodafone's inspirational values: hungry, gutsy and different ran hand-in-hand with their personality values: passionate, fun, strong, and savvy.  With these values in mind they gave Lara a polite, friendly, casual and relatively informal style of conversing with customers.

The creation of this persona started with a series of workshops at Vodafone Australia's contact center, which was followed by a number of discussions with their branding team.  A final persona workshop of about 100 staff members involved giving Lara a life - what car she drives, what color hair she has, where she would shop, etc.  With the workshops complete and a decision made on the style of language that Lara was going to use, the team auditioned 7 female and 4 male voices. From these auditions, they short-listed 2 females and 1 male - the decision was facilitated via voting on an internal Web site.  Once a winner was determined, a workshop involving over 100 Vodafone staff decided upon the most appropriate physical attributes.  The end result was a complete biography for the persona, which was used in coaching sessions for the selected voice talent.

Vodafone Australia also took giant efforts to increase internal awareness by appointing "speech champions" to spread the word of Lara's arrival within the contact center.  They were armed with T-shirts, communications packs and speech training.  Lara was also included in the National Roadshow for employees and staff.  A recorded interview between Lara and Vodafone Australia's managing director was posted to the Intranet for staff members to review.  A member of the speech champions dressed up as Lara for the training and launch to encourage the staff to think of her as a colleague rather than as a speech application.  The speech champions also sent TXT/XMX messages to employees' mobiles letting them know Lara was on her way.  There were recorded scenario calls for stores to act as tips sheets to show the usage of "barge-in" as well as a feature in the company magazine for staff to learn about Lara.  Internal acceptance was merely the beginning; it would be up to the customer to decide if Lara was up to the challenge.  Prepaid starter packs were modified and information about Lara was posted on Vodafone Australia's knowledge base on the Internet. Wizard of Oz testing for usability was also used prior to launch by having users come in and be filmed as they went through various scenarios with the Vodafone team.  Microsoft PowerPoint was used to play back sound files so that users felt as though they were dealing with a real automated speech system.  After running through a number of scenarios, users went through an interview process where they provided feedback on the experience.  Based on these results, approximately 12 changes had to be made before the solution could go live.

Now, Lara intercepts 100 percent of prepaid registration calls and completes approximately 60 percent of those calls.  Of the remaining 40 percent that she does not complete, she captures partial details on over half of the callers to pass on to the live operator.  Maintaining customer satisfaction during the implementation was essential, so Vodafone Australia measured this satisfaction with design testing, usability testing, call center feedback and market research. After only three months of operation, customer research came back with 75 percent of callers having a very good overall experience with Lara, 75 percent of callers believing Lara worked well or very well, 80 percent of callers believing it was easy to register their new SIM, 96 percent of callers believing that Lara's language is easy to understand, and 79 percent of callers being comfortable speaking with Lara.

Overall, the return on investment (ROI) was extremely positive with a 12 month ROI close to being achieved. Vodafone's "Big Hairy Audacious Goal" (BHAG) is to achieve 3.4 million customers by March 2005, a 30 percent increase in subscriber base.

In the future
With the success of Lara in prepaid registration, Vodafone has big plans for Lara moving forward, which includes having all calls to the contact center greeted by Lara.  Lara would then direct their calls based on their needs either to a self-service application or to the correct area of the contact center. 

Stephanie Owens is the associate editor for Speech Technology Magazine.  She can be reached at stephanie@amcommpublications.com .

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