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Automated Directory Assistance
Speech-enabling the Next Generation of Customer Service

In the recent Voice Portals and Applications Report published by Datamonitor, the company combines the Auto-attendant and Directory Assistant Applications for reporting purposes, but states that supply-side revenues in 2002 will be $145 million and will grow by 31% to $190 million in 2003. The Directory Assistance (DA) market is gaining new ground as companies in the space have begun implementing premium services to their offerings, e.g., speech recognition technology. While providing such enhanced services to their customers, companies around the world are trying to reduce operating costs and/or create new streams of revenue. Keeping increased customer satisfaction and driving-up repeat usage in mind, many service providers are finding that automating their DA service is helping them meet their goals.

Fonecta, formerly Sonera, is one of Finland's largest providers of electronic and operator-assisted directory services, as well as its largest carrier. Fonecta has been trying to prepare itself for the increasing competiton in the Finnish DA market by offering a premium service. For a solution they turned to Phonetic Systems to automate their more than five million name database. According to Leo Rantanen, product manager for Fonecta, "We have been using back-end automation in our operator assisted service for years and this [speech technology], I think, was a natural step in technical development."

One of the problems facing carriers such as Fonecta is the ability to include large enough databases for the speech technology to be effective. According to Timo Mattero, senior product development manager for Fonecta, capacity was hardly an issue for this deployment, and he stated that the only drawback was waiting a few months to gain barge-in functionality. Mattero stated, "Having application developers that can react quickly to changes or problems with the system is very important."

Fonecta has done some analysis of the data they collected thus far and have come to some interesting conclusions about their research. They have had mainly positive feedback and customers are learning quickly to use the automated DA. While their target market is people under 40 years of age and who pay their own phone bills, they have seen some difficulty among older individuals with acceptance and usage. It is in this age group that people are "opting-out" of the automated system and going to a live operator. While Fonecta has no formal ROI to report as of yet, their expectations are high.

Travel around the globe from Fonecta and you'll find a carrier in Brazil known as Companhia de TelecomunicaƧƵes do Brasil Central (CTBC Telecom), or CTBC as it is commonly known. CTBC wanted not only a reduction in its call center costs, but also needed to increase customer satisfaction. From a deployment by Nuance, CTBC was able to meet both objectives. Their case was slightly different from that of other carriers. Only a few companies are able to provide a solution based on a Brazilian Portuguese grammar, and this proved to cause several obstacles throughout the deployment. The Brazilian Portuguese grammar was not as easy to work with as English, calling for additional work on the grammar development. Another challenge was to create an application capable of interacting with customers that have very diverse backgrounds: from highly educated city dwellers to illiterate rural workers, many with different accents.

When asked about the ease of implementation for this deployment, Denis Salum of product development for CTBC, said, "It was a complex implementation. The whole process took more than one year to be totally implemented, with several phases, because the DA project is a part of a larger project. Today, each one of our subscribers who wants to talk to CTBC to ask for information, ask about bill problems, or even buy a new service, will pass through our speech recognition system."

There are more than one million subscribers to the service, in more than 300 cities and four states in Brazil. CTBC achieved an ROI on this project in 2.5 years. Salum stated that this result was very satisfactory, and that they launched their Voice Portal in March of this year, based on the acceptance and ROI of the DA project. In addition to DA, the company offers more than 20 voice-driven applications, including call steering and voice-activated dialing. CTBC Cellular and ASC Telemarketing, sister companies of CTBC, are also implementing these services and expect to significantly improve service, create new sources of revenue and reduce operating costs.

In December 2001, CellWand launched #TAXI with Rogers AT&T Wireless in Canada. #TAXI is an industry specific enhanced DA service, in that it allows callers to obtain a taxi in any city or town across Canada by dialing #-T-A-X-I on their Rogers phone. Through a couple of voice activated menus, the service will recommend a cab company for the caller, find callers the first available taxi in any of the urban areas, or allow callers to be able to obtain a preferred taxicab company should they have one. CellWand was called to meet the need for this DA service because live attendants were providing poor service to callers, in that they would often connect callers to busy signals, or not be able to recommend a cab company should the caller not know a local company. This system, as well as all offerings from CellWand, utilizes Nuance speech recognition technology.

According to CellWand research, "Almost 90 per cent of people in need of a taxi didn't have a phone number to call. In fact, a sizable portion of all "411" calls is to request the number of a taxi company." The company also feels that the synergy between cell phone users and taxicab users is strong; approximately 60 per cent of taxi users are between the ages of 18 and 34 and many of those individuals are also wireless communications subscribers.

When asked about the challenges surrounding such an implementation, Nick Quain, president of CellWand said, "There were challenges related to customizing the voice recognition for French Canadian accents, building the service so it would work on wireless networks and some of the sophistication on the IVR side by avoiding busy signals and finding the first available taxi dispatch during busy periods." He noted, however, "Implementation was not a major problem, as it required only the programming to the wireless carriers network and the adjustment to their billing systems."

Philips Speech Processing has also taken on several DA projects with its Telephony Division. The company joined with Infocom Corp., the system integrator of various industry solutions in Japan, to speech-enable DA for Japan Multimedia Service (JMS) Corp. JMS is one of the largest directory service providers in Japan. The solution hosts over eight million business listings covering all of Japan, and is accessible to J-phone subscribers (acquired by Vodaphone in November 2001). This premier service offering was just added to the JMS roster on July 1, 2002.

The need for the automated DA arose from the high cost of DA in Japan. JMS wanted offer a low cost solution to DA that would drive customers to use the service. Previously, customers would have to pay 100 YEN plus the cost of the call for obtaining information via DA. With the speech solution, JMS was able to offer the service free of charge, so the customer would only have to pay for the time spent on the call. The company receives a portion of the communication revenue, which compensates for the costs.

Kenji Kitamura, when asked about the usability of the system, said, "The system is simple… Specify Location (City, Town), Specify Name (company), Get Name & telephone number. Kitamura added, "You can get up to six listings, and it only takes a total of 60-90 seconds."

TDC, a telecommunications company in Denmark, also faced the issue of high customer costs when it decided to implement a speech solution. TDC wanted to target those customers that did not use the current operator assisted services due to cost. The company also wanted to establish itself as a market leader in the newly liberalized Danish market.

Based on an already established relationship with Philips, TDC decided to go to work on automating its DA. While the deployment is a few months away, TDC has gathered some valuable statistics from its field trial. They learned that the target customers, ages 15 to 60, find it very easy to use and will use it if the price is right. The customers want a very low price point, and a free offering if possible. Customer feedback on the synthesized speech has been positive, while the same can be said for the speech recognition. Customers expect the experience to be as pleasant as live operator assisted calls, and TDC has found satisfaction here as well.

Mr. Kim Hoffmann of operator services for TDC said, "According to our market survey, we expect a return on our investment within one to two years, depending on pricing and customer adoption." Hoffman also stated, "By adding this service to our operator services and our Internet services, this step will complete the directory services portfolio for TDC."

In the United States, AT&T and Tellme, are providing nation-wide, toll-free DA to businesses. By dialing 1-800-555-1212, users can access many companies' toll-free numbers throughout the country. This service is free to all users and provides the caller with the most commonly used tol-free numbers for those companies that are listed within database.

As carriers continue to seek out new ways of reducing costs while improving customer service, automating their DA offerings will most likely be considered. According to The Global Outlook for Directory Assistance/Enquiry by Kathleen Pierz of the Kelsey Group, by 2006 the DA retail market size will reach more than $50 billion worldwide from its current $25 billion. As this market continues to grow in all points of the world, speech recogntion technology could prove to be an invaluable addition to carriers' needs.

Mike Terry is the editor for Speech Technology Magazine. He can be reached at mike@amcommpublications.com

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