Author Urges Attendees to Design Speech Apps with Feeling

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NEW YORK (SpeechTEK 2010) — Emily Yellin opened this year’s conference with a rousing speech based on her new book, Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us. Yellin, a journalist, gave a call to arms for companies to amend bad business practices, such as one she says initially inspired the book’s concept. She was on hold for hours with a company that was supposed to fix her furnace. That was when she realized someone needed to look into these kinds of practices. “I try to do my reporting from the customer’s perspective,” she says. 

One of the central problems Yellin identified in her keynote address August 2 is that often customer interactions are dehumanized, either because of a large separation between the caller and call agent or because of an interactive voice response (IVR) system. Designers need to use machines to do good, not evil, she said, challenging them “to infuse what you do with humanity.”

Design—of the entire customer service—follow-through, and values are most important to creating productive and meaningful customer interactions, Yellin stated. “What I’m talking about is a value system where what you’re doing means more than the numbers,” she said. 

These “soft” skills—of humanizing and paying attention to feelings—are difficult, but even changing the smallest details of a customer’s experience makes a big difference, Yellin said.

Yellin relayed some colorful stories that illustrated how difficult customer interactions could become. In particular she brought the audience’s attention to a Comcast customer who called 47 times to have a service problem remedied. At some point after this negative customer experience, the customer noticed her name on her bill was changed to “Bitchdog.” Comcast has since turned around, but still has far to go, Yellin said. 

The words you use and how you use them are really important to how your customer sees you, especially when it comes to speech technology, she added. Quoting from a JetBlue training problem (this was before the Steven Slater fiasco), what you don’t want to do is tell customers, “You’re stupid,” “I’m not going to help you,” “I don’t care,” “Shut up,” and “You’re lying.” Though no one has ever told a customer one of these things directly (or they know they shouldn’t), a lot of customer interactions end up suggesting one of these statements nonetheless. For example, Yellin quoted JetBlue trainers, “When you’re told that you should have been at your flight 90 minutes before your flight, you’re telling the customer they’re stupid.” 

Yellin continued to discuss the importance of mitigating an IVR with a good experience, stressing the importance of language. Yellin lauded the attempt to humanize automated voices (some are based on voice actors), and while she contended that speech technology has improved, she warned that IVR systems are still unpopular. 

Furthermore, acronyms can be alienating, Yellin asserted. “I understand the shortcuts, the language, but when you start talking in a language only you understand, that’s really counter to what is supposed to be reaching out and connecting to customers,” she said. 

Yellin said to improve customer service, companies have to consider the words they use and the kind of effect these words will have. People will remember how you make them feel, Yellin said, quoting writer Maya Angelou.

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