Implementing Speech Doesn't Have to Mean Trade-Offs

San Francisco: As with any technology, enterprises that deploy speech-based customer call center applications had better be prepared to revisit the technology often, veteran call center users asserted during the keynote panel discussion that opened the SpeechTEK West conference here Feb. 21.

Satellite TV provider DirecTV, credit card services provider MasterCard, hotel and events ticketing firm Red Lion, and Canadian telephone service provider TELUS went through the procurement, deployment, and implementation of speech products and are now using them on the firing line in real-world, large-scale business environments. Before getting to that level, though, they first had to overcome significant hurdles in the form of speed, accuracy, and acceptance issues that hampered the technology in its early days.

"We learned early on that customers do not have a lot of tolerance for errors made by the IVR," said Joanne Beaton, vice president of operator services at TELUS, a company with more than 10.5 million wireless and phone and Internet customers in Canada. It was also difficult to get call center agents to buy into and accept the technology, requiring an entire overhaul of the corporate culture.

In 2002, TELUS became one of the first companies in Canada to introduce a natural language application, and customers were not happy about it. But, after the company tweaked it over time, it found that customer satisfaction actually increased, the number of errors decreased, and significant cash flow could be generated.

At MasterCard Advisors, the biggest hurdle was speed, made more difficult by the tremendous number of cities and countries that had to be incorporated into its databases. By revisiting its speech application to allow customers to enter their current location by voice, the company reversed a situation where only 30 percent of calls to the contact center were getting through. It later added a service that allows the application to upload relevant ATM information to a caller's mobile phone, "because one of the things we found was that people were trying to write it down and they kept asking the system to repeat it," said David Weis, managing consultant at MasterCard.

Speed issues in another form were the greatest challenge for Red Lion Hotels, which also operates an events ticketing arm through its TicketsWest subsidiary. When it introduced speech into its call center, it also redesigned its Web site so that customers could also make reservations and buy tickets online. "Never underestimate the amount of back-end integration needed to make the system work," advised Barry Hughes, vice president of marketing and distribution at Red Lion Hotels.

DirecTV faced the same situation, based on the number of things that customers could do through its system. After several refinements, culminating with the addition of natural language applications in 2005, customer satisfaction rates skyrocketed and the number of customer call-backs decreased as dramatically, said Mike Uhlenkamp, call center technology manager at DirecTV.

"Pay-per-view ordering is one of our most successful, and we're handling about 65 percent of calls with automation," he said. "Now, we're finding that if people can avoid talking to a live agent, they would sooner do that."

"The key to providing an effective system is looking at what the customers want," Beaton said. "Having consistency and driving customer requirements into the system at the design phase is critical."

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