Review of SpeechTEK 2006

The core theme that wove itself into the fabric of SpeechTEK 2006 was improving customer service. This theme was launched by Paul English in his kick-off keynote and reiterated in Phil Lempert's keynote on the final day of the conference. Both men chastised the speech-processing industry and our customers for failing to make speech self-service systems more sensitive and responsive. English decried the cost-containment focus in many corporate call centers which treats customers more like machines than like the valuable corporate assets they really are. He provided a list of self-service "do's" and "don'ts" (see sidebar) and announced that his GetHuman effort is joining forces with Nuance and Microsoft to establish a set of standards for good customer service in call centers.  Lempert extended the critique to flawed customer service provided by humans. He advised the industry to work to truly understand consumer/customer needs and trends and to use that as the basis for formulating customer-contact programs.

Both the English and the Lempert keynotes concluded with the keynote speaker joining a panel of speech-industry experts. The panelists responded to questions from the audience. This combination of keynote + panel added depth and breadth to the topic of customer service. The industry experts were able to adjust the focus of the keynotes so that they reflected challenges, issues, and areas of disagreement that already surround the topic of improving the customer experience. This kind of industry input that is invaluable. I sincerely hope that it is part of the GetHuman-Nuance-Microsoft standards effort.

The customer-service theme resurfaced in other keynotes, main conference sessions, workshops and symposia, and offerings by vendors in the exhibition. Among the sessions and presentations that covered this topic are Steve Chambers' keynote which offered a set of "tipping points" and supporting principles which circled back to the "mantra" of creating a better customer experience; the AVIOS Advanced Speech Technologies Symposium session on advanced techniques for improving customer interaction; and a presentation on addressing the needs of visually-impaired individuals in the government vertical market. In the exhibition hall, vendors were demonstrating products and solutions that perform analytics designed to enhance customer care as well as platforms that consolidate or establish interfaces between the disparate customer-care modalities.

The program extended well beyond the usual focus on speech recognition in call centers. This was especially evident in the vertical market workshops which included presentations on improving worker productivity, supply chain management, healthcare services delivery, security issues in delivery of financial services, and real-time transcription. There was a three-session track on biometrics and security and another track on new and emerging technologies that included speech analytics and machine translation. Attention to multi-modal/multimedia increased significantly from prior years as well. There a workshop on X+V by IBM, a tutorial multimedia in SpeechTEK University as well as a multimedia track in the main conference.  The attention to IP increased as well with individual presentation and SpeechTEK University tutorials on combining voice over IP with speech and IP multimedia subsystems.  In addition to these was the new "Birds of a Feather" program which allowed attendees to network with each other about topics of special interest to them. The "Birds of a Feather" meetings could easily become a springboard for innovative sessions and tracks of future SpeechTEK conferences. The problem was choosing from among these increased options - especially given the overall professional level of the presentations. These kinds of expansions could easily lead to mini-conferences, webinars, and/or podcasts on individual topics.

SpeechTEK 2006 was marked by two passages. One, the 25th anniversary of AVIOS, was a celebration that included retrospectives, a demonstration of Radio Rex (possibly the first "speech recognition" device), and probing questions related to the state and direction of the industry. The sparse attendance at the AVIOS anniversary celebration was disappointing given the interesting topics covered and the important role an active and vibrant industry association could play. The only flaw in the program was the lack of audience participation and discourse that could have occurred, especially in response to some of the thoughtful questions and invited responses.

The other passage was the change of ownership of both SpeechTEK and Speech Technology Magazine. John Kelly officially handed over the reins of both to Tom Hogan, the founder and CEO of Information Today, Inc. In his introduction of Tom, John said that he had been approached by many potential buyers. He accepted Information Today's offer when he became convinced that they not only could take the conference and magazine to the next level but that they sincerely wanted to do that.

Paul English's "do's" and "don'ts"


  1. Always provide estimated wait time. This is not new technology. It can be implemented on any system.
  2. If a human is available, have them answer the phone. If not, still give the caller a way to opt out of the system.
  3. If the caller is on hold, tell them how long the wait will be and update that frequently.
  4. Offer a callback option
  5. Let callers interrupt (barge in)
  6. Make prompts short and easy to understand
  7. Remember the information that the caller provided earlier in the interaction.  Don't make them repeat it. It's also good to have and to refer to the record of priors interactions with that customer. That will tell the customer that her/his call is important to you.
  8. Allow the caller to rate the call whether they've dealt with an agent or IVR. If customer service is truly an asset then you need to benchmark good service. This also allows you to track changes over time.
  9. If you record a call offer to give the caller a copy of the call so they can have evidence of what was said.
  10. In the US, even though you can probably assume that the caller speaks English. You should still provide other language options. For access points that utilize cards, like ATMs it shouldn't be necessary for the customer to select her/his language every time. It can be put on the card.


  1. Don't play Muzak and don't repeat any ads. Once is enough, especially when the ads are not of interest to the customer. They are calling for a reason - not to hear ads.
  2. Don't be verbose in prompts (see #6, above).
  3. Don't make the caller repeat information (see #7, above).
  4. Persona is fine for reinforcing the brand but don't overdo it. Customers don't like it when you take it too far.
  5. Don't say "your call is important" when you put someone on hold. If it were true you would take their call immediately.  
  6. Don't ask the caller to enter long strings of digits using DTMF. That is hard and prone to error. It's better to combine caller ID with a shorter PIN (or to use speech).
  7. If the caller says something unexpected, don't hang up. Route the call to an agent.


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