For the Best Hires, Retailers Hire Speech

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For many displaced and downsized workers, the retail sector—with its high employee turnover and high seasonal demand—has always been a safe haven for viable employment, providing temporary, seasonal, shift, or hourly work. It was a good resource for people not looking for careers, just for work for “the time being.”

But that was in the past. Today, the economic climate has caused the jobless rate to soar to heights not seen since the early 1980s. Nationally, unemployment rose from 7.6 percent in January to 8.5 percent (amounting to about 12.5 million people) at the end of March. This includes the retail industry, which has been forced into layoffs of its own, precipitated by the closing of lower-performing stores. Hardest hit have been auto dealerships and sporting goods, home furnishing, building materials, and garden supplies retailers, but no retailer is immune. Even the ubiquitous Starbucks plans to shutter more than 900 stores across the country this year and lay off 7,000 employees.

Still, while retail jobs might not be as readily available as they once were, demand for them has not let up. In fact, it has spiked in recent weeks. Along with it, so has demand among retailers for higher levels of precision in the hiring process. In a down economy, it becomes harder to identify the good employees because everyone is desperate, and those making the hiring decisions are too overburdened to accurately assess the most basic of qualifications.

To that end, leading retailers are turning to speech-enabled hiring and workforce management solutions to help them bring the best sales associates on board, while at the same time improving recruiting effectiveness, speeding the hiring process, and reducing costs per hire.

Interactive voice response (IVR) systems are one technology that has found a home in the retail sector hiring process. Among the vendors of these solutions are Cytiva Software, Deploy Solutions (which became part of Kronos Software in October 2007), Ifbyphone, Message Technologies Inc. (MTI), Nexidia, and Nemesysco.

With IVR-based hiring solutions, callers dial into a 24-hour toll-free number that retailers have set aside for their human resources departments. Most solutions can be programmed with a single company phone number that then routes applicants to specific subdirectories for each job or department within the company. Within each subdirectory, a specific set of questions can be geared toward a particular job. 

Some solutions, such as Ifbyphone’s Job Screening solution— which is front-ended by its SurVo Voice Forms engine—also let companies tie their job recruitment phone numbers to click-to-call links on their Web sites. 

Once in the IVR, callers are presented with a series of questions, which can be scripted by the vendor, a voice user interface designer, or the retailer. The system then records the answers, creating a voice resume of sorts that can be stored and accessed by hiring managers. 

Applicants can even be required to list their availability, shift preference, or willingness to work weekends or holidays. In fact, any major concern of on-site management can be addressed without a time-consuming interview or phone call. Virtual job applications can be as long or as short as the retailer wants. A completely custom application process means that on-site managers get the critical information they need, and they get it instantaneously, with no effort or action required from corporate recruiting.

A main benefit of automated systems like these is that applicants tend to answer questions more honestly with a voice-based telephone system than during a face-to-face interview or even when filling in a Web site questionnaire, according to Darrell Knight, president of MTI. As an example, Knight says he’s often surprised by how many people answer in the affirmative when his company’s AssuredVoice Retail Employment Pre-Assessment Tool asks if they’ve ever used drugs.

“The bulk of these systems tend to be deployed in lower-end retail, where you can filter applicants with simple questions like, ‘Do you take drugs?’” Knight says. “You can also tell a lot about the person by the delay between when the question is asked and when he starts his response, and that’s not something you get from a Web site. You get more human feedback.”

Cutting the Clutter

As an added benefit, these systems also allow retailers to cut the paper clutter. Hiring managers can eliminate stacks of paper applications, resumes, cover letters, and applicant files. They can end the manual input of applicant information, thereby eliminating typing errors and the handling of incomplete applications. Furthermore, the systems provide a consistent hiring experience throughout the company.

And while the majority of job applications today—often in the range of 85 percent—come in via the Internet, providing a phone channel is an effective way to expand the pool of applicants to those who do not have a computer or access to the Internet. For example, convenience store chain Sheetz, which operates 350 stores in Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, reports that about 16 percent of its job applications come in through its IVR. The company has more than 11,000 employees.

IVRs that create voice resumes are not very complicated and can be deployed quickly, according to Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting. “Call us up and leave your information—that’s easy to do,” she says. “And it can literally save hundreds of hours of interviewing time.”

And with many of these systems now hosted by vendors or third-party providers, they can also save retailers a significant amount of money.

“We host the solution. It’s a great application for hosting because [retailers] do not want to pay for a solution that they might not be using all the time,” Knight says.

“An awful lot of retailers in the U.S. are not in the Fortune 500,” adds Irv Shapiro, president and CEO of Ifbyphone. “They have a limited number of IT or telecom people on staff. The fact that [a system] can be provisioned or set up without any specific IT or telecom experience is driving the use of hosted [solutions] in retail for things like this.”

But the real benefit of speech technologies in the hiring process comes when speech analytics applications—long a staple in retail call centers—are used behind the scenes in HR programs to prescreen applicants. “You can absolutely use speech analytics, like keyword spotting, for that,” Fluss says. 

Most vendors are packaging IVR and speech recognition to capture a potential employee’s input, but speech analytics offers a great opportunity beyond that, according to Steve Lawrence, a former research associate at Aberdeen Group. 

Using basic keyword spotting, for example, hiring managers can set the system to flag certain answers given during the IVR dialogue to either disqualify job applicants or advance them to the next step in the hiring process. “Once a speech resume has been entered, it can be pulled into an HR system,” Lawrence says. “HR can go in and search for specific keywords or do a conceptual search to go well beyond those words in their search...to narrow or expand the field.”

That’s what Cytiva Software’s solutions do. Once collected, candidate data that is fed into Sonic IVR is imported into Sonic Recruit, where potential employers can begin the vetting process with advanced search, ranking, and hiring process features.

“For prescreening job candidates, [analytics] is a no-brainer,” Lawrence maintains. “It can help you understand what is being said, how it’s being said, and how excited people are about it.” 

Fluss shares that belief, noting that speech analytics technologies with an emotion detection component can play a significant role in the hiring process. It has “great potential for identifying at-risk employees and to see if [the applicants] fit the psychological profile needed for the job,” she says.

And in retail jobs, perhaps more than any other industry segment, having trustworthy employees can make all the difference. The potential for theft is great, but an even greater risk can come from employees who would steal customer credit card numbers and other information to commit identity theft.

Pass the Test

To address that issue, Nemesysco’s Layered Voice Analysis (LVA) Pre-Employment Screening application comes with an automated test that gauges a candidate’s responses to questions related to issues like breaches in company confidentiality, theft from the workplace, bribery and kickbacks, fraud, drug and alcohol use, and gambling. The system presents a set of questions on screen, reads them out loud to the candidate via text-to-speech, records his answers, and guides him through the test, which takes roughly 30 to 40 minutes to complete. It then measures the emotional content in the voice rather than the specific words used, providing insight into the candidate’s ethical inclinations. It does this by identifying which parts of his responses he might be uncertain about, which questions required more thought or attention, and which issues might be considered sensitive subjects.

Additional applications, such as periodic checks for existing employees, credit-risk assessments, and post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses, are also available from Nemesysco. Together, all of these applications can help managers eliminate the threat of liability from making the wrong hiring decision or retaining an at-risk employee, says Yossi Pinkas, vice president of sales and marketing at the Israeli company.

When properly used, analytics “helps reverse the hidden costs of poor hiring processes: lower service levels and lost customers,” says a spokeswoman at speech analytics solutions vendor Nexidia. 

Still, speech technologies should not be the sole arbiter in a hiring decision. Even Nemesysco, in product literature for its LVA-i solution, is quick to point out that companies should conduct follow-up interviews with candidates, and that its solutions are meant only as a decision-support tool.

Fluss agrees. “Speech analytics has been in use for many years,” she says, “but if you’re using it for very sensitive decisions, you want to back it up with a human. You do not want to base decisions solely on automation.”

Once the personnel are in place, speech technologies can also play an important role in the employee training process. “A lot of the training, especially in retail food service, for example, is watching a video once you’re hired, and that’s it,” Lawrence says. “Training is a huge opportunity for speech. You can definitely use speech to make sure the sales reps are up to speed. You can make sure they’re hitting the right words, using the right tools, and following the right protocols.”

For a low-risk training session—i.e., one that doesn’t involve real customers who can be turned away by a bad sales approach—a number of phone-based training tools can be employed. One such tool is from Knowledgeshift. The Mobi-Role-Play solution, which it released in January, incorporates IVR technologies from Ifbyphone to create a multimodal application that allows users to engage, via their cell phones, in simulated conversations with pretend clients or sales prospects, taking them through scenarios they might encounter on the job.

“Companies are finding it hard to pull employees together to conduct the traditional role-play exercises that really allow them to practice how to talk to customers or prospective customers,” explains Nancy Munro, CEO of Knowledgeshift. “It’s so critical to put yourself in a simulation that will allow you to accelerate your skills to maximize the precious time that you have when you are in front of your customers. Using these short Mobi-Role-Play simulations allows employees to practice this just about anywhere.”

And because retailers want to make sure sales associates are doing the job for which they were hired and trained—that is, to sell products and generate revenue—many continue to seek out speech technologies to remove incoming calls from stores, routing them instead to central call centers. In those call centers, automated systems provide callers with the means to use their voices to order catalogs, locate stores, make product inquiries, place orders, track shipments, make payments, register for warranties, find out about return policies, locate inventory, respond to customer satisfaction surveys, inquire about loyalty or gift card balances, and update account information. 

Regardless of what type of product the retailer sells, routine inquiries can make up 90 percent of the calls coming into stores, MTI’s Knight says. “So these solutions are absolutely viable. People are buying them, and they make sense.”

“Employee costs are a significant burden on retail,” Ifbyphone’s Shapiro adds, “so the more time I can have them spending with customers on the floor and the less time they’re on the phone, the greater the benefit.” 

And though it’s not something retailers like to talk about, these automated solutions can also help address another real concern in tough economic times. “If you’re trying to cut staff—which is one of the biggest overheads—you can do it by automating these calls,” Knight says. “The one benefit [of automation] in this economy is the ability to drive reductions in call center agents or store-level personnel to save costs.” 

Speech for the Blind Business Owner

Hundreds of retailers couldn't operate without voice-enabled technologies

For budding young entrepreneurs looking to set up lemonade stands in their parents’ driveways this summer, speech-enabled cash registers are more than educational tools that can teach them to count and grasp the concept of money. Manufacturers of these colorful toys—which come in such stylish colors as pink or purple and often tie into popular children’s characters like Barbie or Dora the Explorer—swear their products work just like the real thing. In fact, most feature a working calculator, LED display, scanner with bar-coded price tags (which a child can affix to a food item or his baby brother), voice output that automatically announces subtotals, a working microphone, and play money and credit cards. Working cash drawers even make a “cha-ching” sound when opened.

These machines, marketed by firms like Fisher-Price, Back to Basics Toys, and Summit, offer hours of learning and playful fun. But for many in the real world, products like these are a serious part of the retail experience. There are, for example, several thousand blind business owners for whom real talking cash registers and other speech-enabled retail equipment, including credit card terminals, barcode scanners, bill and coin identifiers, counters and sorters, retail scales, retail foodservice thermometers, and calculators, are a business necessity.

“There are many blind people running businesses who need this type of equipment to do their jobs, so that if someone gives them a $5 bill and tries to say that it’s a $50, the [business owner] can know the truth,” says Lee Benham, president of CAPTEK/Science Products, a Southeastern, Pa.-based supplier of such equipment.

Many of these small business owners fall under the Randolph-Sheppard Act, a federal program enacted in 1936 that requires government agencies to give priority to state-licensed blind vendors when it comes to operating retail cafeterias, concession stands, and vending outlets in government facilities. Currently, those types of operations exist in about 3,100 locations. Most people who operate these businesses earn about $40,000 a year; the entire program generates about $488 million a year for such businesses.

Randolph-Sheppard’s stated goal is to provide blind adults who are able to work with employment and economic opportunities while stimulating them to become independent and self-supporting.

“Throughout the country, there are hundreds of blind people running these facilities and handling these jobs,” Benham says. “Without this type of equipment, they would need to get a sighted person to help them, and that’s not what the program’s about. The goal of the program is to make [the blind] as independent as possible.

“Also, it’s a lot cheaper to buy a piece of equipment than it is to hire a full-time assistant.”

In addition, trust issues are overcome with the equipment because a machine will never knowingly steal from you, some contend. —L.K.

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