Vodafone Spain Drives Customer Satisfaction with Speech

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Typically, customer satisfaction with an interactive voice response (IVR) system is low, but Vodafone Spain, a voice and data communications services provider to more than 14 million Spaniards, has found that 95 percent of its customers surveyed about their experience with the speech-enabled call center find the system easy to use, 89 percent think using the system is quick, and 96 percent are not bothered by the system at all.

In fact, the company has done so well in customer surveys that its call center is quickly becoming the model for customer care across the entire Vodafone Group, one of the world's largest telecommunications companies serving 179 million customers directly in 27 countries and through partner networks in 32 other countries.

"Voice recognition technology works really appropriately and has nearly all the conditions for an excellent call management solution. Although the technology allows us to achieve our targets, the important thing is the use we give to that technology," says Nieves Manrique, IVR channel development specialist at Vodafone Spain.

The system, designed and operated by Ydilo Advanced Voice Solutions in Madrid and based on Nuance's speech recognition engine, was first piloted in December 2003. It replaced an outdated touchtone, operator-assisted system. Among prepaid customers, the new system has yielded an increase in customer satisfaction of 14 percent over the touchtone service and 8 percent compared to an operator; among its post-paid customers, the company saw increased satisfaction of more than 3 percent relative to an operator, according to customer surveys conducted as part of the call center interaction.

The system currently handles approximately 350,000 calls per day. At the start of the call, the system greets the caller and asks her to speak the number about which she is calling. The system authenticates the caller and offers a personalized menu that the customer may bypass at anytime by saying other query or operator. Almost two-thirds (62 percent) of the calls handled are completed by the ASR without human intervention.

By giving customers the option to opt out of the IVR early on, Vodafone Spain found that fewer customers actually did. "First, it was the last option at the menu. Later, we changed it to the first option and that caused something surprising: customers chose it less when it was the first option, which in turn means less calls transferred to the call center," explains Jose Maria Gonzalez, manager of IVR channel development for Vodafone Spain.

"Our goal is that customers who use the IVR will be satisfied with it and that in their next call to customer care service, they will continue choosing the IVR," he says. "We let the customer choose between using the IVR or an agent; and we encourage customers to choose the IVR by showing them nearly all their potential queries at the main menu. The idea is that if the customer finds what he wants at the menu, he will prefer the IVR."

For those calls that do get routed to a live agent, satisfaction is equally high. "When the call arrives to us and with it we receive data about what the customer has done at the IVR, it is easier to resolve the customer's question. The customer finishes the call more satisfied, because he doesn't have to tell about his question twice," affirms Pilar Lindariz, a call center agent at Vodafone Spain.

Beyond the reduction in live call percentages relative to those handled by the system, Vodafone Spain has seen better handling time of live calls, which it attributes to a higher percentage of shorter calls being managed by the ASR.

The system was originally designed to handle inquiries and activations for the company's loyalty rewards program, but has since been expanded to cover account management, calling plan changes, promotions, products and services management, and a lot more. Agents particularly enjoy not having to field too many calls about upcoming promotions. "If we can send most of these kinds of calls to the IVR, the job will be nice," adds call center agent Almudena Buendia.

To date, the system has been used to sign up 411,000 prepaid customers for the loyalty program and to redeem 91,952 gifts in that program. Last December alone, 3,500 pricing plan changes were performed per day.

Since the system is designed for real-time transactions like these, Vodafone Spain created safeguards to reassure callers when the system experiences back-end delays or problems. "Saving calls at the call center has such an important impact that it is really necessary to guarantee that when there are system problems or delays, we are going to provide an alternative solution. If we don't have these alternative safeguards, final calls at the call center would be increased and there wouldn't be enough agents attending them. Customer satisfaction would be decreased drastically," Manrique says.

To prevent drop outs due to recognition errors, Vodafone Spain introduced a touchtone option as a backup to repeated errors in the speech system's ability to recognize the caller's responses. While lowering costs was important, it was more important to the company to drive up customer satisfaction.

The company also placed customer satisfaction above developing a unique persona when designing the speech application. Instead of focusing on just a persona, the company launched several initiatives to personalize the design, voice, grammars, treatment, and dialogues for particular customer segments. For branding, it uses corporate music, marketing messages, and a homogeneous style of wording prompts.

As mentioned previously, Vodafone uses the call center interaction to measure customer satisfaction and to fine-tune its menu. When the network registers the call, it is included in a survey database and a customer relationship management (CRM) database. From the registration information in the databases, the company pulls a representative sample to survey. One hour following the customer's call, the system makes an outbound call to the customer using speech technologies to complete the survey and logs the results into the CRM database.

"We have found that having a long menu with several options increases customers' satisfaction more than a short menu, although initially we thought it was not a good idea," Manrique says.

So far Vodafone Spain has deployed 2,100 ports in Madrid and Barcelona. It expects to have 2,400 ports installed within a year. It also plans to continue expanding the use of speech technologies for its business and for managing new products and services.

In the near future, Vodafone Spain plans to launch a new IVR powered by 3G technology so that a customer can choose to interact with the system either by using keys and graphics on her mobile phone or by voice.


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