Ringing in the New Year

Consider, for a moment, the plight of the outbound voice marketer: To start with, she's not well liked. Generally, the people she's been reaching out to haven't been all that interested in what she's offering. She interrupts families during dinner. She gets hung up on quite a bit.

But she's also being targeted by Uncle Sam. Between the national "Do Not Call List" and the Federal Trade Commission's crackdown on illegal contacts, she's been getting squeezed into a tiny corner populated almost exclusively by existing customers.

And when you get right down to it, she's just not that effective. Cold calling and poorly targeted outreach produce response rates frigid enough to make Jack Frost reach for his coat.  

So what's a poor outbound marketer to do? As we begin projects for 2007, Speech Technology examines the few places in the marketing arena where voice can still be heard loud and clear.

Much of traditional marketing is a one-trick pony—supplying a single message by the marketer. The most familiar applications of phone-based marketing fall into that category: voice notification, fraud alerts, contact center automation, bill collections, and crisis management—all simple calls using pre-recorded voice and, at their most advanced, dynamically formulated using customer-specific data. When married to interactive speech and voice technologies, however, telephone outreach enables what William Meisel, president of TMA Associates, has called "conversational marketing."  

Unfortunately, our desire to master that conversation may not yet be matched by the available technology. Not many companies have any history at all with voice in outbound-marketing, according to Chris Selland, vice president of business development at SoundBite Communications, an automated customer-contact solutions provider.

In fact, even among the industry's largest suppliers of contact center solutions, speech-based marketing efforts remain rare. "It's hard for us to point to even one customer who's really using automated speech for outbound marketing," says Tom Chamberlain, director of business processes for Aspect Software. "Think about what you have to do in the sales cycle," he adds. "You have to be able to present an offer to that customer, describe the benefits of what that offer is, handle any objections that the customer may have, and then, once you get them closed, [move on] to fulfillment or to say 'Thank you very much.' It's very difficult to predict or program a specific set of offers, benefits, counters, and objections, and get all the way through the process without the use of a person. There are so many dynamics involved in that process—it's virtually impossible [and] it certainly doesn't end up being practical." 

Randy Haldeman, vice president of marketing at Apptera, another customer contact voice technology company, says that when it comes to outbound possibilities, retailers in particular "are intrigued by the idea of having their customers sign up [to be called] when a particular item comes in," but he estimates that "opt-in marketing is six months to a year away." For the time being, he adds, "this is stuff we've all shied away from."

Bern Elliot, an analyst at Gartner, is even more blunt: "I don't know if automated, speech-based telemarketing is going to be particularly successful." 

Still, the only reason that outbound marketing is even a theoretical possibility today is a result of the major advances that have taken place. "So much technology has been developed over the last 10 years in and around things like answering machine detection," SoundBite's Selland says. "If you were calling somebody and their answering machine picked up, you would certainly say different things to their answering machine than you would say if you got to them in person."

And not everyone is convinced that speech-enabled outbound marketing is a pipe dream. Meisel, for one, thinks it is simply a matter of applying the technology to the appropriate vertical segment. "Speech technology isn't used in outbound marketing as much as it is in inbound marketing, but it is used," he says, citing healthcare as an example. 

Where Callers Have No Fear
Part of the reason for that is the nearly four-year-old Do Not Call (DNC) legislation that has limited outbound marketers to a pool of consumers who either have not yet signed up for the DNC list or have an existing business relationship with the company. As a result, the catchphrase of the last few years—"permission- based marketing" has taken on mission-critical status.  

Meanwhile, some outbound calls are spared the red tape. Calls made on behalf of political organizations, or made for purely informational purposes, are exempted from the DNC regulations.

There's an upside to all this heightened regulation, though. Selland, for example, expects to see "continued acceptance of speech technologies, both by companies and by consumers, as a valid way of having companies communicate with their customers and vice versa." The legislative moves, he believes, "will help on that front. It'll give consumers more confidence that the calls they're getting are actually valuable to them and not voice spam."  

Elliot agrees. "In the long run this [legislation] is going to improve response rates," he predicts.

The trick is to make the message matter. "For the delivery of targeted marketing messages, where there's value to the recipient, where you're not just sending out voice spam to try to sell time shares but [offering], say, a balance transfer on a credit-card activation, the response rate is very, very solid if it's done well," Selland maintains. 

Chamberlain agrees, but says that the benefits have yet to be realized. "When you're working with [existing] clients— and have a very focused task that you're trying to accomplish, or a focused marketing message—we see opportunities, but we haven't seen people take advantage of those opportunities."

It's difficult to dig into that risk/reward balance, though, without historical evidence of speech-based outbound marketing's track record—and the industry simply hasn't produced any. 

Gartner's Elliot says that he'd be suspicious of any hard data when it comes to outbound marketing anyway, since marketing success often depends more on the underlying contact list than it does on the method of outreach. "In some cases, if the list is good, you can have very good responses," he states.

It also helps if the marketing is "short and to the point," according to a 2005 report by marketing consultancy Yankelovich Partners. 

"Companies that try to sell 19 things in one voice message—that generally isn't going to work very well," Selland says. "Try to get one message across, and be as short and sweet as you can. That's what customers ultimately are looking for. Get to the point, tell me what this is, and tell me why it's valuable to me. If you do that well, you'll be successful."

Outbound marketing can also be used to gauge customer satisfaction—not merely as follow-up for upselling, crossselling, and incremental growth. 

Asurion, a provider of vehicle roadside assistance, for example, works with Mindshare and SoundBite Communications to re-contact callers right away. Ten minutes after the estimated arrival time of the service person, the customer receives an automated voice message asking for confirmation that help has arrived and soliciting participation in a brief survey about the experience. If a customer indicates that help has not arrived, a live agent is immediately brought on the line to provide assistance.

With the immediate follow-up, Asurion ensures not only the best service possible, but also learns ways to improve performance. "The ability to…respond to real-time customer feedback in an automated and cost-effective manner is invaluable to our business," Donna Drehmann, director of customer satisfaction, said in a statement. 

Multimedia Multiplication
A tiny glimmer of hope resides in a very small place indeed: speech-enabled messaging on mobile phones. But the future of speech in outbound marketing almost certainly lies in the hybrid world of multimedia. A piece of direct mail may lead a potential customer to a Web page, where an on-screen button might activate an instant-messaging chat-bot, which might prompt the customer to provide a phone number that a live agent could dial. Or a recorded-voice call with interactive speech recognition capabilities could reach out to an existing customer and remind her of an outstanding balance on her credit card, directing her to a personalized Web page where she receives targeted offers customized to correspond to the answers she gave during the call. 

In the United Kingdom, for example, VoxGen's VoiceCampaign offers a combination of text-to-speech and speech recognition technologies to animate marketing calls with voices, music, and sound. The company also combines SMS messaging and phone calls to engage the customer.

Another early example of this kind of multimodal marketing was on display last year in a campaign by European carmaker Opel, a subsidiary of General Motors. Opel, looking to herald the launch of a new convertible, emailed 80,000 addresses in its database, asking recipients to supply their phone numbers. In exchange, Opel promised to enter them into a sweepstakes, and not to share the phone numbers with anyone. 

Interest was surprisingly high: 16,000 people sent in their phone numbers, and were greeted with a second email providing a link to a Web site. Once there, consumers viewed a comedic three-minute movie, personalized with their names in one scene. Moments later, when a character in the film is seen dialing a phone, the consumer's own phone rang, with a 30- second message from the character inviting the consumer to test drive the new car. The innovative combination of media snowballed into a viral mania, with recipients providing email addresses and phone numbers for their friends so they, too, could get "called" by the Web movie.

In just a few weeks, the campaign generated 450,000 calls. This, says Elisabeth Jane Bertrand, a Belgian interactive marketing consultant who worked on the project for eStara, a division of e-commerce solutions provider ATG, "is a typical example of how cross-media integration works. This was a bilateral approach, using two media channels." Because of the personalized component, she says, "you see a much higher level of consumer engagement with the brand." 

Voice Value
And an outbound call placed directly to the consumers, she adds, represents "the highest level you can achieve without literally going to their houses and knocking on the door." Because of the opt-in nature of the original contact, and the viral nature of the subsequent contacts, "people really didn't mind being phoned—not when they're actually going to be provided some kind of value." 

Bertrand sees the use of speech and voice as the natural evolution of multimedia marketing. Outbound marketing campaigns, she says, "definitely become more expensive with voice—but they also become more effective with voice. Online advertising is becoming more advanced everyday and more beautiful, but it hasn't become as personal as it should be. We have the tools in hand to create a real personal relationship using the Internet and voice technology."

Some aspects of the technology are still in development—notably the use of analytics and data mining applied to recordings of outbound calls to glean additional customer information. Cutting- edge research is being done at IBM and elsewhere to properly gauge the emotional cadence of call recipients. 

Still, when it comes to speech technologies in outboundmarketing, the literal and figurative hang-ups are not going away anytime soon. "It's not a technology issue as much as a practicality issue in terms of effectiveness and a regulatory issue," Chamberlain says. "I think it's the human element that won't change. People are still going to want to buy from people, buy from someone who understands them, from whom they have at least a quality of confidence in their tone." It will remain that way, he adds, "unless the dialogue technology can advance far enough so that it'll be imperceptible that it's a person or it's a machine, and I haven't seen that yet."

In other words, that poor outbound voice marketer's days of woe aren't over yet.

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