Not Everyone Has a Phone Voice

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Just as a good haircut projects a good personal image, a good voice recording can make all the difference in the world when it comes to presenting a good corporate image, interactive voice response (IVR) and voice prompt recording experts advise.

Many companies wrongfully assume that anyone with a voice can record their voice prompts, a thought pattern that can lead to disastrous results later on, says Susan Berkley, founder of the Great Voice Co. "After all, we all talk and anyone can step in front of a [microphone] and say a few words," she says. "Well, we can all wield a scissor, but have you ever tried to cut your own hair? Sometimes it looks good, but more often than not, you'll be wearing a hat—and a really embarrassed look on your face—for weeks."

Another mistake that companies often make is leaving the design and building of an IVR, auto attendant, automatic call distributor, voicemail, or other prerecorded voice system entirely in the hands of the IT department, adds Paul Beran, president and CEO of Advertel, an advertising agency specializing in telephone media. He likens the move to "letting the guy who fixes your copiers come in and design your marketing brochure."

"Bob from the IT Department" may sound good over the phone when the chief technology officer calls to check on the status of a systems upgrade, but that doesn't necessarily mean that his should automatically be the first voice a customer hears when calling into a corporate call center. "All too often, businesses leave the task of developing their telephone image—through the maze of voice prompts, menus and hold queues—to the technicians who wire the equipment," Beran argues. "Not to detract from the expertise of installers, but they're not typically qualified to make marketing or public relations recommendations. Problem is, business owners don't realize that they're asking their telephone or IT departments to handle corporate image responsibilities when designing and recording their telephone system.

"The telephone is a means to communicate with customers. Too many people consider it just a box on a desk, with wires, switches, and buttons. It's not just a box; it's really about the people on the other end. Once you recognize the real potential of the telephone, it takes on a whole new light, and you do not want to relegate it to the IT or telecom folks alone," he continues. "Creating an auto-attendant is not just an IT or telecom function. It's really a marketing function as well."

It's also a good idea to avoid using employees who are constantly busy. "He'll just hurry through the recording to get back to work," suggests Kevin Bryan, vice president of sales and marketing at Digital Base Productions, a voice prompt recording outfit.

Another problem often experienced when using a voice from within the company is that employees leave. "If you do it internally, what happens if the person leaves the company?" Bryan asks. "You can't rerecord the voice if things change, and having two separate voices is a no-no in the industry. You want to have one voice throughout."

"You need a continuity of flavor," adds Allison Smith, a Calgary-based professional voice-over artist who has lent her voice to hundreds of voice prompt recordings all over the world during the last 10 years or so. "For a caller to listen to a patchwork of different sounds and voices will never work."

For that reason, a lot of IVR and voice prompt experts recommend using Smith or the thousands of other professional voice talents out there for recordings. Smith, of course, thinks it's a good idea. "With a professional, you have a reproducible record," she states. "If you hire someone, you have a better chance of matching their previous prompts."

All too often, though, companies don't even consider a professional voice-over artist, assuming the cost of their services would be too high. "I encounter a lot of people who are surprised at how cost-effective it is to hire a professional voice," Smith says, who has done recordings for Apple Software Support, Newport, Pennzoil, Vonage, Bell Canada, Cingular, Asterisk, and many other companies large and small. She's been the voice behind automated customer satisfaction surveys for J.D. Power & Associates, Bayer, Marriott Hotels, Bank of America, and Victoria's Secret. She's even received automated phone calls that she recorded for online auction retailer eBay to let her know that she was outbid on an item. "They expect to spend thousands of dollars, and it's really not that expensive. You generally pay an hourly rate to the voice talent, but he or she can do it fairly quickly, as opposed to a staff member who will take a lot longer. In that sense, it's really quite cost-effective."

According to Voice 123, an online voiceover talent scouting agency, professionals usually fetch between $160 and $190 an hour, or between $5 and $6 per prompt, to record phone, IVR, and on-hold messages.

Berkley admits that hiring a professional voice to record speech prompts will certainly cost more than doing it yourself, but says using one could save time, money, and headaches later. "You get a consistent, reliable, professional sound and an actor who can take direction and provide you with a finely nuanced read. Because this is all they do, professional voice talents are there when you need them and can be counted on to provide you with a clear, quality recording time after time," she says.

Another option is to use prompting software, such as Microsoft's Speech Application SDK, which will convert written text to a computer-generated audio file. These applications not only allow users to record and edit prompts themselves, but to manage an entire prompt database, including all the audio and non-audio materials contained in the applications. These might include things like pauses, background music, welcome jingles, sound effects, and more.

Even before deciding on who will provide the voice of the company, it is important to determine the image that you want the recorded voice to project. This image, or persona, can range from an old school teacher to a middle-America farmer to a New York construction worker, and everything in between. "It really does depend on the mandates of the company and the mood and mindset of the company," Smith advises. "A Fortune 500 might be more conservative, but if you don't take yourself too seriously, maybe you want to project more of an irreverent, light-hearted mood."

Developing and scripting that persona can be among the hardest parts of creating an automated phone system. "A company should have in mind what it wants to do and project beforehand," Digital Base's Bryan says. "You have to ask yourself, based on the type of company, its customers, geography, and products, what type of voice you want."

That's where Beran sees the greatest opportunity to involve the marketing arm of the company. "Companies spend a lot of money to advertise on TV, radio, and in print. Whatever you put on the phone, it needs to be consistent with the quality and the message of all the other advertising you're doing," he says. "The company should sound as good over the phone as it looks in its print or other advertising. How you sound on the phone is at least as important as how you look in print, and it should truly and accurately represent the quality of your company and its products or services."

Gender selection is also important, and, more often than not, a good, solid female voice works best, Bryan suggests.

"In voice prompts, females far outnumber males, probably because they have more of a calming tone," Smith says. "Even in some companies that are heavily male-dominated, a female voice is usually requested."

Consider the Gateway

The same basic principles apply as much to the gateway—the initial greeting—as they do to the main menu, perhaps even more so. "Just the right two- to three-second gateway could make the difference for the whole phone call," Beran says. "Here's an opportunity to make a splash. Include a sound effect, a professional voice, something that sets you apart."

After the gateway comes the rest of the script, where short, sweet and to the point is the name of the game. "You can't pack 115 words into 30 seconds and expect a warm, relaxed read," suggests Craig Burnett, another voice-over artist. The average script should read at about two-and-a-half words per second, though you might be able to push it to three or three-and-a-half if you're trying to convey a fast-paced, hard-sell attitude, he advises.

"There's no formula around the best way to script, but short, concise and easy to maneuver is essential," Smith says. "If you have a clear and enthusiastic intro, a very clear tree that outlines all the options, an option to clear out to an operator, and a way to dial out to an extension before listening to the whole menu, you're much better off."

"You need to offer [callers] the chance to talk to a live person fast," Digital Base's Bryan agrees. He emphasizes setting up the prompts so that callers can get in, get what they need, and then get out quickly. "That's why speech recognition in an IVR is so important because a caller can bypass the rest of the menu simply by using his voice."

Making the prompts short and concise often requires an effort to eliminate opportunities for duplication. Voice prompt software designers at Microsoft, for example, suggest a single prompt using general rather than very specific phrases. It is better to say I did not understand what you said once rather than to record separate I did not understand the phone number you entered and I did not understand the area code you entered, the company advises on its Web site.

Being short and concise should also involve limiting the number of prompts where possible. "Just because a phone has twelve buttons, doesn't mean you have to include them all in your menu," Advertel's Beran says. "People only tend to remember three or four items at a time, so when creating a menu tree, have three across and three down, and by then, you have to have the person connected.

"And, when you play any kind of menu, it's a good idea to play some kind of a sound that suggests to the caller I am waiting for a response from you," he adds.

Beran also notes that it's a good idea to create some kind of a recorded message that can be played during hold times. He suggests this as the perfect opportunity for a marketing or advertising pitch, rather than just a repetitive Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line prompt.

"If you ignore phone hold times, you're missing a huge marketing opportunity. Hundreds of free advertising minutes a year are missed," he says. "Music only is not as engaging as informational messages. Keep your clients engaged while they're on hold.

"Engage the customer rather than giving her a reason to hang up. Make it a little more friendly so that the customer feels like she got something out of it. Alternate between male and female voices, throw in a [Frequently Asked Questions] part, sell with it, throw in some trivia targeted to the audience and the reasons that they are calling. And don't overlay it with an obligatory message. It's bad enough they're on hold, don't remind them of it."

"Don't just run a repetitive, looping on-hold message; they irritate customers more than anything else," voice-over artist Smith also maintains. "If they're going to be on hold for more than five minutes, have a call-back option."

Pick a Place

The last thing to consider when making your own prompts is the location where the recordings will happen. While a professional recording studio is best because it already has the best acoustics, equipment, technicians, project management support staff, and directors that money can buy, booking studio time can be a costly and time-consuming process.

Instead, recordings can be done just as effectively in a small, quiet conference room, or even inside a car parked in a deserted parking lot. When using space in the office, though, it is imperative that you be aware of possible background noises, from things like refrigerators, computer fans, lighting systems, water fountains, opening and shutting doors, heating and cooling systems, and the like, as well as outside noises like traffic, sirens or children playing. These are the types of sounds that most people have trained themselves to filter out in everyday life, and many may not even know they exist until they start recording.

"Do your recording in a pretty small room. You don't want one that's too big because there may be an echo. Also, have carpeting in the room because it deadens any echoes," Digital Base's Bryan suggests.

As a last piece of advice, Smith urges those making their own recordings not to be stingy when it comes to the equipment, such as the microphones, computer sound cards, and editing software.

"You need quality equipment that will be compatible with all your other software, hardware, etc." Bryan adds.

But in the long run, know that "it is possible to create acceptable-quality prompts for over-the-phone speech recognition and IVR systems without hiring a professional recording studio," says VUI designer Brian Krause.

"Finally, not all prompts are equally important," he concludes. "The welcome prompt that everybody hears every time they call must be the best you can achieve. But, an error message that is only going to be played once a year is only worth so much bother, especially if you are looking for a low-budget solution."

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