Indisputable Facts

Over the past couple of months I have participated in three major events: ICCM - Chicago (the International Call Center Management event), VOX (the annual Kelsey Group conference) and TechXNY (many of you know this event by its former name, PC Expo). I heard a recurring theme at each of these events as I talked with buyers and vendors. Why is speech technology not being adopted faster? This is a good question that affects all of us and on which I offer some thoughts with this column.

Does speech work? Companies such as T. Rowe Price, United Airlines, UPS, Dreyfus, Manulife Financial, Merrill Lynch, Amtrak, Readers Digest, Union Pacific Railroad, Priceline.com, Unified Dispatch, Advanced Legal Tech, Kiwee, Bell South, ATT, Verizon, Fonecta, Telenor, Harcourt Publishers, Microsoft, AOL, among many others have said yes, it works. Datamonitor estimates that one-quarter of the Fortune 500 invested in speech technology last year alone. On page 16, Jeri Sibert describes how the State of Michigan successfully deployed a speech solution to provide taxpayers access to a state-of-the-art customer call center that would provide answers to questions about current state tax law, individual tax issues or Treasury Department rules and regulations. It works.

It is too expensive. Compared to what? There are incredible ROI stories from companies implementing speech solutions. United Airlines saved $25 million dollars when the company introduced speech. Office Depot reports that handling customer calls through a voice interface costs 84% less than routing calls to live, customer service operators.

According to the Pelorus Group traditional call centers cost $1 to $15 per call to operate while utilizing a speech solution reduces those costs to $.10 to $1. Dreyfeus saved a third by switching from touch-tone to a speech solution. Will the price of the technology go down? Sure, but don’t all technologies get cheaper over time? For many companies it’s too expensive NOT to adopt a speech solution.

Will customers accept it? This is an area in which I think the industry needs to do a better job communicating its message. We know customers prefer a speech solution over being on-hold, trying to figure out the DTMF menus, and problems associated with live agents, among other complaints. The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and other national media outlets in recent stories have attempted to equate the automation of customer self-service with poor service. However, in every survey I have seen customers prefer self-service for automating their inquiries and more quickly handling their transactions. A great example is the change of address notification solution implemented by National Grid. They report that 50% of their callers use the system, up from zero automation, which, at the end of the call, also offers customers an opportunity to buy a local newspaper subscription. National Grid took a major cost and turned it into a potential profit center and certainly improved their customer service.

So why are more companies not moving forward with purchases of speech solutions? Maybe it is something we heard during the 1992 presidential election campaign- It’s the economy, stupid! Can anyone remember when we have experienced such a “perfect storm” of negative influences on the economy? I am stating the obvious, but in my conversations with potential buyers they generally cite economic issues, not the technology itself, as the major factor preventing them from making a speech investment.

In this edition of Speech Technology Magazine, we offer a few insights from leading opinion makers in this industry to some of the issues above. Dr. Bill Meisel offers his thoughts on a theory he proposes called- Conversational Marketing. Bill has been a leader in this industry for over 20 years and this article represents his thoughts on how the telephony VUI can go further and act as a new medium in marketing—in keeping customers and finding new ones. Steve Chambers, chief marketing officer of SpeechWorks, offers his thoughts on why organizations wishing to achieve significant positive business results should develop a “speech strategy”.

Lastly, I want to close this column by saying a thank you to Ron Croen who announced recently that he was moving from the CEO position at Nuance to chairman of the board. Ron has always spoken his mind and has certainly moved this industry forward. It is tough being the CEO of a young, publicly-traded, technology company today, and apparently Ron wants to take some time to move that creative mind of his in new directions. I wish him well in his new capacity.

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