Crossing the ROI Chasm

If the first months of 2002 are any indication, this year may go down in history as the technology industry’s year of “Return On Investment”, or ROI. Sales reps across the country are becoming overnight financial gurus, Web sites are being updated with ROI calculators, and technology investment “hurdle rates” are the measuring stick for a “go” or “no-go” decision from chief financial officers across a myriad of industries. When thinking ROI, many companies are thinking of the most common customer interface—the telephone. In fact, as speech systems take on unique personalities and extend a company’s brand to the telephone, companies may often see value beyond traditional automation technologies. Yet in the climate of ROI-driven business decisions, making the ROI for adopting speech solutions real, tangible and measurable is more important than ever. Two Levels of ROI Differentiation: Business and Technology Measurement
With the business rationale established, just where and how to implement a speech recognition solution leaves many call center managers scratching their heads. Every industry and company is unique and deals with a dynamic set of customers. Because of these issues, an attractive and logical ROI has to start with an in-depth understanding of a company’s call center characteristics, relevant cost reduction targets, customer demographics and current automation goals. Often the most logical ROI for speech systems stem from identifying touch-tone “problem areas” and understanding both the rationale and cost benefit equation of how a speech investment can do better. For example, Amtrak’s business case analysis for speech emerged from the realization that a significant volume of calls (2.7 million annually) were categorized as “train-status” inquiries. The touch-tone system delivered marginal, at-best, automation of these requests, with many of the callers ending up in the hands of busy agents who were trying to sell train tickets. The speech system has improved automation of train-status calls to 70% today, eliminating 900,000 annual calls to agents and saving millions of dollars a year – delivering a compelling ROI to Amtrak annually, and demonstrating a quick win to upper management. (Try it yourself by calling 800.USA.RAIL and ask “Julie” to help find a train for you!) To address their “if we build it they will come” concerns, Amtrak needed customer programs and marketing messaging designed to get the word out—another critical business dimension of crossing the ROI chasm. In order to achieve an ROI of any magnitude, the application needed to see significant call volumes, and handle those calls appropriately without the caller abandoning to talk to an agent. For the call center managers that worry about how their agents will respond to speech applications – Thrifty Rental Car provides an illustrative example of just how effective of a customer acquisition tool the right speech application can be, while keeping agents from mundane and non-revenue generating calls. Thrifty prides itself on a professional and personal experience when callers dial their 1-800 THRIFTY service. They found agent productivity impacted by callers purely “shopping” rental care rates and needed to automate car rental price quote requests without losing the opportunity to ‘close the deal’. Thrifty chose to go after a speech application that would lower operational costs and improve customer acquisition rates. The speech system delicately balances the Thrifty experience to car rental shoppers – and immediately brings an agent on the phone when a customer is ready to buy. Best of all, the speech system has improved Thrifty’s “conversion rate” of shoppers to buyers by 40%, and in a recent survey 90% of the callers who experienced the system said it “met or exceeded” their expectations. Again, the realization of the ROI started with a business case rationale that was developed with thought and careful analysis. Once a caller is in the speech system, it’s in the technology’s hands to deliver automation if an ROI is ever going to be measured. A robust recognition engine capable of adapting to the unique caller utterances that are associated with the application is key, as is a user interface that balances promoting brand while coddling the caller through the experience. Speech systems literally need to learn and record what the caller said to the system to correct past mistakes and chronicle potential future phrases and dialects that it might incur. Additional key technology components to realizing an ROI for a speech system are the tools and language that the system is developed in. The key here is industry standard and non-proprietary, something that doesn’t require massive recruiting efforts to replace staff that might leave the company for greener pastures. One standard that has been adopted by many industry professionals is VoiceXML for telephony-based applications. More information on VoiceXML can be obtained at http://www.voicexml.org. Another language, soon to be presented before an international standards body, is SALT (Speech Application Language Tags), which is intended to address multimodal application issues. More information on SALT can be obtained at http://www.saltforum.org. It is important that the application is scalable, reliable and portable building blocks for integrating smoothly into customer database environments, leveraging deployed speech industry experience, and to avoid bringing networks to their knees. And one of the most important tools for a speech system to go from the “whiteboard to the real ROI” are tools that monitor, measure and report on how well the system is actually automating on its promise. The Bottom Line
While many speech companies advertise an ROI of under 12 months, accelerating the payback period rests on how effectively the technology investment can deliver business value. (For additional information on this issue, see “Understanding Investment in Your VUI: An ROI Approach,” by John Moffly, in this issue of STM.) Ultimately, understanding where to implement first requires a clear and articulate business case. The right application combined with the right technology and a user interface that leaves the caller hanging up with a smile can reduce a 12-month ROI to six. Moreover, the ability to measure how effective the system is in delivering results gives companies a powerful weapon to managing their customer inquiries, and an ROI with a “hurdle rate” that will make most CFO’s smile. Michael Thompson is the director of solutions marketing for SpeechWorks International Inc. He can be reached at 617.428.4444 and by email at mike.thompson@speechworks.com.
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