Creating Fluidity Between Channels

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Once heralded as a wunderkind type of technology, speech has seen its share of pain points over the years, as vendors have struggled to refine emerging solutions and keep pace with the economy. Although momentum slowed during the recession, companies began to show renewed interest in speech applications in 2010, according to a recent report from Global Industry Analysts, which predicts that the worldwide market for voice recognition systems and software alone is projected to grow 29.1 percent during the next few years, reaching a total of $69.4 billion by 2015. Improved adaptability and accuracy in automatic speech recognition, text-to-speech, and speaker verification are all factors helping to drive robust growth. The growth comes on the backs of companies looking to differentiate themselves through improved customer care—more specifically, their customer interaction strategies.

It's no secret that customers today are communicating with companies in nontraditional ways, such as mobile devices and the Web. This presents new opportunities for organizations to not only meet customers on their preferred communication channels, but also to leverage each of those channels to their fullest potential. Doing so, however, will significantly affect the way speech technology is viewed and used in an enterprise.

Moving forward, speech applications must be a part of a larger strategy that enables customers to start an interaction on one modality or channel and seamlessly jump to another without any data loss. This naturally requires customer care departments to sync their customer interaction channels and modalities. But before you begin, it's helpful to understand what options are available today and what you can expect tomorrow.

Multimodal and Cross-Channel Integration: What's the Difference?

These terms are often used interchangeably, and they become blurred when people confuse "mode" (a form of communication such as speak and listen) with "channel" (the connection between the user and computer, such as a telephone or Web connection), says Jim Larson, vice president of Larson Technical Services.

"It gets confusing when people consider social media, faxes, text, voice, and even broadcast media as channels," Larson says.

To put it simply, multichannel or cross-channel integration is how the customer interacts with the company, which could be via a call center, an IVR system, or a mobile app. Multimodal is focused on how information is presented across various devices, whether it's via touch on an iPhone or through the Web.

According to Kathy Juve, chief marketing officer at 24/7, the two go hand in hand.

"One of the things we're trying to work on is helping these two metrics, because services are creating new opportunities that have not yet existed for large enterprises," Juve says. "With that come new definitions. We're working on that here and with the analyst community to define what cross-channel integration and multimodality are."

Multimodal for Multitaskers

Multimodality can be thought of simply as having the ability to talk, touch, type, and now gesture.

In a recent study conducted by Nuance, the company found that when given an option, 85 percent of consumers would rather use a mobile app than call a company for such routine inquiries as checking bank balances, flight statuses, and other tasks.

"Consumers have clearly embraced the mobile application space, and I think they will continue to do that," says Christy Murfitt, senior solutions manager at Nuance. "What we've heard and seen is that this actually increases customer engagement with companies, so we don't anticipate it cannibalizing the IVR market or the Web as a tool to go to; we're seeing it as an additive communication. For companies, this is great, and any additional engagement with customers is a win in building more solid relationships."

Ilya Bukshteyn, senior director at Microsoft's speech division, agrees that there's a wide range of terms used in the industry, and says Microsoft refers to multimodal as NUI, or natural user interface. The concept is the same in that it combines a natural way of communicating with multiple methods in which users can interact with technology based on the kind of device being used.

"Making those experiences seamless and very natural is the big [difference from] what we've had… ," Bukshteyn says. "When you look at [customer] experiences in the past, they've been in silos. You've gone into separate applications to do speech and what you wanted to do on a screen."

One company that has made a splash in the multimodal space is Angel, which last year released a multimodal app for iPhones which enables users to switch between different input and output methods with a simple tap, toggle back and forth, and interact with contact centers. The app is intended to increase agent productivity with efficient and faster resolution times; accelerate self-service adoption rates to reduce costs and increase call containment; and personalize the customer experience to increase customer loyalty and retention.

"We are doing this in the context of mobile voice and self-service as opposed to an agent pushing something to a caller," says Ahmed Bouzid, director of product management at Angel. "You are dealing with an automated system talking to you through speech, and at certain points…you can use something other than voice, leveraging the ability to enter text or push buttons and see images and so forth on the screen."

Bouzid says that there has been a disconnect between callers being able to serve themselves and being able to reach out and get assistance when they feel it is necessary. "We are seeing that people are now asking for the ability to self-serve in more than one way and to also be able to connect to find human help."

Mazin Gilbert, assistant vice president of Intelligent Systems Research at AT&T, believes that multimodal is a must-have. AT&T has launched Speak4it, a multimodal voice-driven local search app for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.

"Today a large number of customers have a smartphone," Gilbert says. "They're penetrating through the market in large ways. Our Z generation probably in the next few years will not want to call a number and wait for an agent. The entire experience of customer care will slowly become mobile, and we're going to see that in the next few years."

Gilbert says that AT&T defines multimodal a bit differently, and that true multimodal involves apps that use various modalities not individually, but rather simultaneously. "By combining multiple modalities, you can try to understand what a user wants," he says. "Just simply pointing or using speech doesn't help you, multimodality does. This is sort of the next level interface that we are exploring. With gesture being so important, we think the combination of gesture and speech is powerful."

Cross-Channel Integration Is Where You Begin and End

Today, interactions are occurring across multiple customer care channels, such as the phone, Web, and mobile devices, and it's vital that these interactions be natural and consistent across all channels. This is particularly important when you start in one channel, for example, a mobile app, and then transfer to another, say an IVR, explains Dena Skrbina, senior director of solutions marketing, Enterprise division, at Nuance.

"This requires extensibility," Skrbina says. "It's important to understand the changing expectations of the consumer by making sure the system's infrastructure is built properly to create a consistent and natural experience."

24/7's Juve agrees. She believes that there's a real need and expectation on the part of a consumer that companies keep the communication experience seamless.

"If I start an interaction on the phone and I need [additional] information, can the call agent push that information as a text to a smartphone?" she asks. "If I have a flight cancellation and I get an outbound message that there's been a cancellation, can the system say, 'Press here to rebook?' Can I seamlessly transfer? If you start in one channel and finish in another, it needs to be backed by a common platform, which is what we're trying to do at 24/7."

Toward that end, the company acquired Voxify, a provider of IVR technology. In February of this year, 24/7 partnered with Microsoft to incorporate technologies for interactive self-service across mobile, Web, and voice channels, Big Data analytics, and speech and conversational interfaces to create a next-generation cloud platform for customer service.

"We have products today that allow users to go from a Web-based transaction to a voice agent," Juve says. "With the Microsoft announcement, we're able to extend that to mobile or speech, so in the next couple of quarters, we'll be integrating the platform where we can provide those capabilities."

According to a study recently conducted by eGain, one in five people surveyed said they seek help through online self-service, forums, and social media. Consumers also like to channel hop, eGain noted. The study found that two out of five consumers will begin a customer service transaction with phone or email and one in five will choose online self-help.

It's also important to remember when considering cross-channel that the bottom line is not just about ROI in terms of monetary gains, but in customer satisfaction as well.

"Moments of truth occur at multiple points," the survey pointed out. "Every interaction provides an occasion to be remembered or, in the worst case scenario, better forgotten."

Taking the customer experience into account is vital because there's more competition today than ever before, points out Scott Kolman, senior vice president of marketing at SpeechCycle.

"If you look at self-service, it was done to reduce cost per interaction," he says. "What we're finding with companies is that they're absolutely looking at costs, but more and more they're realizing that they can't offer self-service solely for cost savings. People will not only leave if they're dissatisfied, but speak loudly over social media channels and tell everyone if their service was bad."

Staff Writer Michele Masterson can be reached at mmasterson@infotoday.com.

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