Speaking with One Voice

When one of the nation’s leading telecommunications companies introduced an automated speech application to provide independent verification of its new customers – a practice required by the FCC – it approached the “go-live date” with some trepidation. On that day, the automated application would replace live agents as an initial point of contact for new customers – a critical point in the customer relationship. How would customers respond?

The answer surprised everyone: Most customers preferred the automation.

It seems that customers viewed an automated verification process as even more objective and neutral than one conducted by an agent – even a separate agent who was independent of the sale. And it provides an important lesson for those contact center managers who view speech applications as purely cost-saving tools, because it suggests that using speech applications can also help improve customer satisfaction.

In fact, evidence is mounting that this suggestion is real – that speech applications and the automated self-service options they provide are preferred by some customers all of the time, and many customers some of the time. Of course, like any customer service tool, speech applications must be intelligently conceived, carefully tested and thoughtfully implemented to achieve successful results. When they are, however, they can help contact centers boost customer satisfaction while relieving agents of some of the most tedious calls and – not incidentally – cutting costs.

Cost Considerations

Let’s look first at costs, where the benefits of speech applications are well demonstrated. For example, in a Zelos Group study of advanced speech recognition (ASR) implementations conducted for Convergys and SpeechWorks in 2001, average annual savings for an ASR implementation totaled $1.02 million, with half of the applications generating savings of more than $1 million annually. With these kinds of economies, speech applications typically deliver a 100 percent return on investment – repaying all development costs – in under a year, and often in a matter of months.

The cost efficiencies of speech automation are most often demonstrated through comparisons with live agent services. Data published in the trade press and by independent researchers such as the Center for Customer-Driven Quality at Purdue University show that costs of calls handled by speech automation typically range between 60 and 90 percent less than the costs of calls handled by live agents.

With cost reductions like these, it’s no surprise that many customer service and contact center operations first consider the economic advantages of implementing speech. But saving costs isn’t the ultimate measure of whether a speech application succeeds or fails, nor is it the only benefit speech delivers. Customer satisfaction is the real key.

Ease of Use Drives Satisfaction

Speech automation may be the most natural “interface” of all. It’s easy to use and delivers a personal quality missing from touchtone automation.

These qualities were the major factors driving Rite Aid Corporation’s decision to convert its 1-800-RITE-AID store locator service from touchtone to speech automation.

“We were hearing from customers that the touchtone system was not easy to use,” said Mike Cadden, Rite Aid’s director of customer support. “They had to listen to all the menu options, then press numbers. And with so many telephones today having the keypad on the handpiece, callers had to take the phone away from their ear, press the numbers, lift it back to the ear again. A lot of them were opting out to live agents.”

Research supports Rite Aid’s decision, showing much higher satisfaction levels with ASR than with touchtone automation. A survey of callers conducted for SpeechWorks in November 2002 by Gartner Research found 47 percent of users were much more satisfied with speech automation than touchtone automation. Overall, the study found 49 percent of callers were extremely satisfied with speech, with another 35 percent moderately satisfied or neutral. That’s more than eight out of 10 users.

And that’s exactly what Cadden is looking for. “We touch about a million prospects and customers a year through this application,” he said. “That’s a lot of customers. If we’re able to give them an idea of our customer service mission through a more friendly and personal experience on the phone, we’ve met our goal.”

Satisfied customers offer value to every organization, even if it’s sometimes difficult to quantify. But customer satisfaction with speech can be quantified: it adds up to more calls completed in automation. The 2001 Zelos Group study recorded an average increase in call completions of 40 percent when touchtone applications were converted to speech automation. And higher automated call completion rates mean more savings to the bottom line.

Boosting Agent Productivity and Saving Customers’ Time

Data from a recently deployed speech application – a conversion from touchtone – demonstrates how speech can add value while complementing live agent services.

The speech application supports a pre-paid calling service. Callers are invited to obtain a range of information, including rates, retail sales locations, card purchase information and calling instructions for domestic and international calls. Callers can get international calling codes by speaking the name of the country (try spelling out “Mozambique” using your phone’s touchtone keypad).

The speech application went live in autumn of last year. Some of the results were as follows:

Call completion rates within automation increased by 60 percent.

Overall number of calls transferred to live agents decreased by 19 percent.

Average call duration decreased by 4 percent.

The speech application also works in concert with live agents to boost agent productivity. The calls that cannot be resolved in the application are routed to agents along with all of the caller’s account information that has already been collected. This account data, provided via computer telephony integration, populates the customer record on the agent’s desktop. The now-informed agent picks up the call and begins working immediately on the customer’s needs, without having to ask for account information previously presented by the caller.

Now there’s no “I-just-gave-you-this-information” frustration, and the agent’s time with the call is cut by about 30 seconds.

Stronger Speech-Agent Connections

It’s this facet of speech – its ability to integrate with live agents – that is defining a new role for speech automation in the contact center. Speech applications are helping to enhance the overall service

experience for customers, while simultaneously helping live agents handle the calls they must take faster, smarter and more efficiently.

Consider how speech-enabled lead qualification can funnel a dramatically different call mix to live agents. One application handles inquiries for a local telephone service that is available to customers in significant portions of a large western state – but not all of the state.

Unfortunately, advertising and marketing efforts generate incoming inquiries from throughout the state, including many from customers who are not eligible for the service. Prior to the speech application, calls arrived directly at the contact center, where agents had to first determine the caller’s eligibility before beginning the sales process.

Now, incoming prospect calls are accepted by an automated speech solution that captures the caller’s telephone number and simultaneously confirms service eligibility for that number. The automated dialogue confirms the caller’s interest in obtaining local telephone service. If the caller wants service for a different phone number, they can say it to the application, and it will be screened for eligibility. If the caller’s number is not eligible, the application informs them and, before terminating the call, asks if they would like to be notified when they are eligible. This step helps build a database of prequalified future customers, solidifying the business case for rolling out services in the rest of the state.

Only when the prospect is both interested and qualified is the customer passed to a live agent. Since slightly less then half of all prospects are actually eligible for the service, the speech application dramatically changes the mix of calls routed to live agents, delivering actual prospects after screening out the shoppers.

With the qualification process already completed, the calls that do reach live agents are an average of 45 seconds shorter. The result is higher productivity and less wasted time for the agents involved.

The Beauty of Balance

The ability of speech automation to work cooperatively with agents is evolving all the time, as technologies like intelligent call routing are implemented in more and more contact centers. With intelligent call routing, speech applications can be configured to work with contact center agents anywhere in the world, and even with other automated applications.

With this degree of integration, a speech application can serve as a gateway for all contact center calls, assessing the caller’s needs and assigning the call to the agent or automated application that can best serve them.

According to customers themselves, that’s the best of all possible worlds. In the November 2002 study conducted by Gartner Research, callers were asked their preference for dealing with a live agent or a speech application. Sixty-three percent of the respondents indicated a strong preference for a live agent over the speech application. But that’s not the end of the story.

First, there were significant variations in preference depending on the type of transaction or application involved. Callers in high-need states, such as travelers, were considerably more likely to accept or even prefer speech than those calling about routine household needs.

Also interesting: When a two-minute hold time for the live agent is added to the equation, 43 percent of callers strongly prefer the speech application.

This statistic points to the need to balance the resourceful, high-touch care provided by live agents with instantly accessible self-service options, powered by well-designed, easy-to-use speech applications.

Delivering Better Results

The speech application cited in the beginning of this article delivers more evidence that the answer for contact centers lies in a combination of speech and live agent options. In that solution, prospective customers who have agreed to new telecommunications services via a telephone sale are transferred from the sales agent directly to the automated application, for independent verification of the sales transaction.

The welcoming script offers every caller the choice to proceed with the speech-automated verification process, or transfer to a live agent for verification. Almost 90 percent choose to remain in the automated application – and many complete the process and become new customers. The same can be said of the 11 percent who choose to transfer to an agent – the great majority complete the verification successfully in the first attempt.

Here’s the surprise: The combination of these two approaches – live agent and automation, based on the customer’s preference – delivers a higher overall success rate than live agents alone, at less than half the cost per verified customer. But perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise. When customers are invited to choose their mode of interaction, it stands to reason they’ll be more satisfied with the results and more likely to complete the transaction – especially when both options are easy to understand, and convenient to complete. From the customer’s point of view, the cost savings afforded by speech are invisible and beside the point.

In today’s business environment, of course, the need for cost efficiencies is anything but invisible. Datamonitor reports that cost-reduction benefits are the most important driver for IT investments at a majority of enterprises, with most decision-makers citing cost factors as the “main drivers” of IT strategy.

Speech automation delivers those cost efficiencies. But focusing on costs alone misses the broader value speech can bring to the contact center: improved service and higher satisfaction for customers, and greater productivity for live agents. When contact centers implement speech applications designed to achieve all these interrelated goals, they will squeeze the greatest possible value from their automation budgets.

Judy Davis leads all aspects of product and industry marketing for Convergys Corporation’s speech solutions line of business. She can be reached at judy.davis@convergys.com.
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