Speech in Multichannel Customer Service

Speech Usage on the Rise 

More organizations are using speech solutions to complement existing service channels.

It has been a longstanding debate: Do you spend a lot of money on high-quality customer service, or risk upsetting customers with a low-cost approach? The answer, which is not always simple, may require a blend of both, as more companies are including speech-self service as part of their multichannel customer service initiatives.

Companies have adopted various forms of self-service technologies to economically help customers handle presales and postsales needs. Any time a call goes to an agent, it costs $8 to $10, compared to $0.25 to $0.40 for telephone-self service. Internetself service costs even less, according to Laurie Ethridge, senior director of Convergys, Corp.

Aiding the Government

Government assistance is another area where multichannel-self service is becoming more commonplace as officials try to control costs.

The City of Houston is using a combination of customer information management platforms that includes email and inbound and outbound voice capabilities to help citizens report potholes, abandoned cars or litter. Residents are also using the system to obtain information on local government services, such as recycling or how to pay a parking ticket. The system helps customers service themselves with automated information and also provide quick connections to one of 70 agents to help with more complex issues.

"Most people look at the government as an organization with several layers and a great deal of bureaucracy," Bingham says. "We wanted to change that. Our goal with 311 was to create a one-stop shopping concept designed to improve government services in the city of Houston."

Having the technology in place also helped the city handle a call volume that doubled during and immediately after the Katrina and Rita hurricanes in 2005, according to Gloria Bingham, director of Houston 311. The system has reduced average wait times from three to four minutes down to 10 to 12 seconds, which was critical before and after the storms. A recording also informed callers how long they would need to wait for a live agent.

"If we didn't have advanced contact center solutions in place, the general population may have viewed the government as unavailable during disastrous times," Bingham says.

"It used to be that companies looked at the call center agent as the primary way to provide customer interaction. In the last five or six years, however, contact centers have begun supporting multichannel self-service with Web-self service in addition to email and faxes," says Daniel Hong, senior voice business analyst for Datamonitor.

"If 100 people call a financial services call center, 10 out of 100 might simply want a balance. Another 20 might want balance information and to transfer money from one account to another. The remaining 70 percent need more assistance and need to talk to an agent. If you can have [the first 30] customers service themselves, then the agents can concentrate on the other 70. If you do that, queue times go down and customer service goes up," Hong says.

More organizations are using speech solutions to complement existing service channels. The National Retail Federation (NRF), a trade group representing more than 2,000 retailers globally, prides itself on staying on the leading edge of technological convenience for its members. So when Parus Interactive suggested a way to improve the NRF's annual convention using speech technology, the NRF listened.

Prior to and during the convention, attendees visit the NRF's Web site to schedule appointments, find vendor information, bus schedules, and other information. While this information is generally available on the Web, attendees don't always have access to the Internet. However, "they almost always have access to the phone," says Susan Newman, NRF vice president of conferences.

Parus Interactive proposed using a speech-activated IVR system that would enable attendees to obtain convention information from their cell phones or a kiosk on the show floor. If attendees want to schedule an appointment with a particular exhibitor, they can call the conference information number, identify themselves and tell the system they want an appointment. The system responds back with available appointment times. The callers can then request a time and the system will confirm the appointment. The system will also notify the exhibitor by text message, email or phone, depending on the parameters the exhibitor established.

Other tradeshow planners saw the system in use at the NRF show in New York earlier this year and are talking with Parus about using the technology at similar venues. "It worked very well. I think it will get more use as more people become familiar with it," Newman says.

Increased Sales

Customer-self service preference is evolving along with the technology. Touchtone-self service is a popular way to cost-effectively serve customers, but touch- tone IVRs have their own limitations. "There's only so much that you can do with an alpha-numeric-based system," Hong says. "With a speech-enabled IVR, the system can handle more variables and route calls more efficiently. A good speech-enabled system should help you reduce staffing in your contact center."

In the multimedia contact center or older call center setting, experts see speech technologies as critical elements of the multichannel-self service mix. Nearly a third of contact centers (31 percent) use speech recognition today and another 17 percent plan to install it in the next year, according to Dimension Data.

Some of these communications, typically the more complex ones, will need to go to an agent. But a well-developed speech-enabled system can handle some of those more complex interactions or can be used in conjunction with the Web and text messaging to provide self-service rather than engaging a more expensive live agent.

Speech System Design Importance

The better planned the speech scripts, the better the return a company will get on its speech technology investment, according to Hong. If a customer has to go through too many prompts or is otherwise dissatisfied with the self-service channel, he's much less likely to use it again.

"A lot of it comes back to understanding the customer base," says J.R. Sloan, vice president of products and solutions management for Syntellect, Inc. Sloan recommends that companies pilot any speech-self service technology before putting it into full production.

"People may call a product you're selling something different than you thought they would, so you need to attune [the speech application] properly," Sloan explains. "Speech is not something that everyone knows how to do well. You need to provide helpful and useful information prompts."

"Some of the applications are not meeting what the customer wants to do," agrees Michael Chavez, vice president of marketing for ClickFox, an analytic software developer.

Chavez explains that if a speech enabled IVR has the same level of drop-off (customer hanging up or going to a live agent) than a touchtone IVR, then it's evidence that the business drivers aren't improving. In these instances, the companies need to more closely monitor customer behavior. One way of doing this is to examine what customers say to an IVR.

"If we look at utterances and what people say in the system, we can have more insight in what the customer wants to do," Convergys's Ethridge says. Convergys provides third-party customer care and Internet billing services and is a ClickFox partner.

Datamonitor's Hong recommends that companies design their speech-enabled IVR's construct scripts in such a way that the customer can quickly conduct any selfservice. In other words, the system has to be designed so that any decision matrix has as few layers as possible so that the customer is serviced as quickly as possible. This serves two purposes: The more quickly the customer can obtain the information he seeks, the happier he is with the company; and the quicker the service, the more calls the automated system can handle.

If customers are doing nothing more than going through a speech-activated decision tree that's only a little different from a touchtone system, they're likely to become frustrated quickly.

Some firms are going one step further to provide a better customer-self service experience, says Kevin Hebebarth, director of strategic analysis for Witness Systems. "They're treating the speech IVR like another agent," Hebebarth explains. "They're measuring response times, how customers respond to different scripts, and other percentages of first-call resolutions just like they would with a live agent."

Companies are integrating these systems as parts of multimedia-self service solutions. Self-service should provide a mix of speech, touchtone, email, Web chat, and short message service capabilities, according to Kevin Stone, senior director of products for BeVocal. Teens and young adults may prefer to receive additional information via SMS, while generation X members might prefer email and older baby boomers might prefer a phone call. Companies can ask prospects their channel of choice when making the first contact. While the phone may be the channel for the first contact, the prospect may prefer most communications via email.

Some airlines are starting to use speech combined with email and messaging capabilities to enable customers to buy tickets, learn flight status, and perform other selfservice functions, according to Jonathan Zaremski, director of product marketing for Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories. He and other telecommunications experts expect to see more combinations of multichannel- self service as more companies adopt XML technologies that enable the sharing of voice (VoiceXML), data, and other content across different channels.

Phillip Britt is president of S&P Enterprises, Inc., an editorial services firm. In that capacity, he has covered telecommunications, banking technology, and related subjects for more than 15 years for several national publications. He has also been on show daily staff for SUPERCOMM for the last five years.


SpeechTek Covers
for qualified subscribers
Subscribe Now Current Issue Past Issues