Voice as a Gateway for New Services

Service providers have a long history of leading the market in deploying innovative and effective speech automation. From the first voice portal deployments to automated agent testing and handset activations, carriers have shown that they are fully willing to embrace the benefits of voice recognition technology. Today, virtually all of the major carriers have deployed some type of speech-enabled application and are looking for areas where this technology can help them further. The reasons why service providers are looking to deploy speech have remained the same for years: increase revenue, lower costs and improve customer service. What’s changed is how service providers are using the technology to achieve these goals.


Early Wins With Voice Portals Open the Door for Speech

For many wireless service providers, their first foray into speech-enabled applications was with voice activated dialing and voice portal services. The combined VAD/voice portal offering helped carriers overcome many of the problems they were facing: increasing the average revenue per user, lowering churn and differentiating their service. The applications helped to increase revenue because they drove more phone usage. Subscribers could more easily place calls when all of the numbers from their Outlook or Palm address book were stored in the network and retrievable with voice commands. Offering this type of service made sense for wireless service providers due to the increasing restrictions around the use of handsets when driving. Carriers also have been able to charge a premium for these services. Heavy phone users are happy to pay a small premium to make their phone more usable. An additional benefit of these services to carriers is churn reduction. Once subscribers took the time to upload their address books, it became much more of a burden for them to switch carriers. Given the huge costs associated with customer acquisition, even the slightest impact on churn is an important win.


Many carriers have viewed these enhanced services as a key part of their branded offering. Virgin Mobile USA prominently promotes their Virgin Xtras as one of the ways that Virgin makes mobile phones more fun. It’s an important part of their youth-oriented marketing strategy. Likewise, ATandT promotes their #121 voice portal as part of their M-Life offering. Sprint PCS launched a major nationwide advertising campaign when they came out with their voice dialing service. With wireless carriers finding it difficult to differentiate their services, VAD/voice portal offerings became a key way to add some personality and uniqueness to otherwise similar services.


Automating Customer Care Provides the Greatest Savings

Once voice portal applications proved that speech technology really works, carriers began looking beyond these applications to find other ways in which speech recognition technology could help them meet their business objectives. Clearly the area with the biggest potential impact is customer care and the ability to reduce the number of live agents in call centers. At the same time, carriers are learning that call automation done right can actually increase customer satisfaction. Callers who simply want to get the status of an order or pay a bill are more interested in fast resolution than in speaking with a person. The potential for cost reductions based on increasing levels of automation is still very large, as is the potential for improved customer care. A few recent deployments show the different ways in which both of these objectives are being achieved.


The Christmas holiday is normally a high call volume period for wireless carriers since new phones are a popular gift item. During this last holiday rush, a wireless carrier found that their customer care call volume for new handset orders were significantly higher than they had provisioned for. They simply didn’t have enough capacity to answer all the calls they were getting. The result was fast busy signals for many callers, and long waits on hold for those that did get through. Given the short window of the holiday shopping season, this service provider simply didn’t have time to add new capacity and train agents. A solution that would offload a significant number of calls from agents was needed immediately.


The carrier chose an outsourced speech-enabled order status application to solve its problem. A significant portion of callers was simply trying to get the status on an order they’d already placed, but because the order tracking numbers were alphanumeric, DTMF was not an interface option. By going with an outsourced service provider, the wireless carrier was able to deploy the application in fewer than 10 days. In addition to providing order statuses, the application was also able to route calls to various call center functions such as sales or technical support and inform callers of what their expected wait times would be.


The benefits for this wireless carrier were dramatic. The number of blocked calls went to zero. People who simply wanted order status received that information immediately, rather than waiting on hold for long periods of time. Lastly, callers who needed information, wanted to purchase additional handsets or receive technical support were able to get help faster as well. The end result was increased automation with higher caller satisfaction.


While this carrier chose to automate one portion of their customer care, mobile virtual network operator Liberty Wireless chose to speech automate virtually everything. Callers now use voice commands to get account balances, find out how many minutes they have remaining, pay bills and access other information. Using speech, Liberty was able to more than double the automation rate they were realizing from their previous touch-tone IVR system. Liberty customers still have the option to talk to a customer service agent if they want to, but most find the automated application is fast and easy to use. In fact, VocaLabs, a call center testing agency, recently awarded Liberty a “AAA” rating for its customer service application, highlighting the fact that high automation rates and customer satisfaction can go hand in hand. Liberty’s speech-enabled customer service application was developed and deployed by BeVocal Inc.


Moving beyond automating agent tasks, Liberty also recently deployed an innovative application called “Hotline.” When a subscriber is out of minutes or hasn’t paid their bill, the application intercepts any call the subscriber tries to place. The subscriber is politely told that he needs to pay his bill to use the phone. The subscriber can then pay with a credit card, or by saying his location, he can be directed to the closest of 65,000 locations where he can pay with cash. This is a significant departure from standard practice in the wireless industry, which is to simply block all outbound calls and force the subscriber to call a separate number for customer service.


By explaining the problem and immediately offering to take payment and reactivate the phone, Liberty hopes to retain subscribers. The application also fits within their strategy of making their services friendly and easy to use. The dialog has a natural language speech interface. The address grammar maps to more than 60,000 payment center locations, so subscribers have no problem finding a payment center. Again, an application that reduced costs was also able to provide high caller satisfaction.


Using Speech to Open New Channels

These applications are just a few of the latest deployments that show how carriers are using speech to increase their revenues and decrease their costs. But service providers are also using speech to find new distribution channels for their services. Speech represents an opportunity to create new sales channels because of where it fits into customer service. Historically, many enhanced phone-based services have been too complex to sell and provision over the phone with a touch-tone IVR interface. The menus were too long, the choices too numerous. At the same time, deploying call center agents to promote and sell these enhanced services proved too expensive.


Cingular Wireless has instead elected to use speech to create a virtual voice store, selling handset insurance, roadside assistance, text messaging and other premium enhanced services. In trying to understand how they could increase their take rate for these enhanced services, the carrier found that many of their subscribers were simply unaware that they could purchase a service such as handset insurance. Given the margins and adoption rates for these services, this carrier concluded that using agents exclusively to explain, sell and activate and provision the enhanced services would not be cost effective. At the same time, a touch-tone interface was considered too clumsy and hard to use to be able to sell the services effectively.


The solution was a speech-enabled application that explains the various available enhanced services to callers and allows them to purchase and self-provision using their voice. The caller can simply say the name of the service they are interested in or select the desired service from a list of options. The application explains the details of the offering and if the caller says they would like to purchase the service, the application can provision the service for immediate usage and have it added to the caller’s bill automatically. One interesting advantage that this application has over agents is that the carrier knows that callers receive a complete, accurate and consistent description of the service they purchased. For offerings like roadside assistance and handset insurance, it’s important that callers understand the limitations as well as the benefits.


The Leading Edge of Innovation

Perhaps one of the most innovative applications in use by a telephone company today is one that cuts costs and improves customer care, yet is never even called by the company’s customers. Instead, it’s used by call center agent applicants. In India, where the call center industry is booming, there is a huge demand for qualified new workers. Staffing these call centers is a real challenge. Agents must be able to understand American accented English, and they need to be able to speak with an accent that Americans can understand easily. Call center jobs are in high demand, so it’s easy for the call center operators to find applicants. The challenge turns out to be screening these applicants to ensure they can actually do the job. Previously, the only way to adequately certify their ability to understand and speak American English was to have them listen and speak in front of an interviewer. But interviewers who are qualified to administer this type of test are expensive, in short supply and can be somewhat subjective in their screening of call center applicants.


BeVocal, in partnership with Accenture, has developed an innovative application that tests a call center applicant’s fluency and comprehension abilities using speech recognition technology. The application plays prompts that simulate phrases a customer might say in a real call. It then asks applicants questions about what they just heard. For example, a prompt within the application may simulate a customer describing the configuration of his computer system. The application then asks the applicant to identify aspects of the configuration revealed in the prompt just played, such as “What is the customer’s operating system” or “How much memory is in the customer’s system?” Applicant responses are scored both for comprehension and fluency in American accented English, enabling applicants to be screened for skills in a completely automated fashion. A final test section in the application asks qualitative questions to get a feel for the applicant’s phone manners. Later, the hiring manager can listen to this part of the call to get an appreciation for the applicant’s communication style.


This application is currently helping a large U.S.-based wireline service provider to ensure that its customers receive quality customer service from skilled agents they can converse with easily. This is a service that provides tremendous savings and, in an environment where overseas call centers are being scrutinized very closely, it protects the carrier from the negative press that poor outsourced customer service would bring.


An upcoming application that changes the dynamics of product distribution is automated handset activation. For most wireless carriers, actually turning on a new subscriber’s handset can be a significant expense. The sales representative in a carrier’s retail store or an agent in a call center spends 10 minutes or more to activate the phone. It can cost the carrier $15 or more per new subscriber to do this. For most carriers, this adds up to a massive expense. Adding to activations volume is churn rate, which in the wireless industry averages 30 percent per year. Moreover, phone upgrades can lead to even higher activations volumes. The result is that, for most wireless carriers, activations account for about one third of their total live agent call costs. Additionally, they need trained staff within their retail stores to facilitate the activation process for in-store customers.


Automated handset activation over the telephone is an attractive application, but there are some significant challenges for carriers to deploy it. One application challenge is the amount of information required. This includes the subscriber’s name, address, credit card, other personal information and serial number information located on the handset that the caller needs to identify. Additionally, the activation process itself is time-consuming and complex. However, none of these challenges are beyond the capability of a well-designed speech-enabled call flow. The success of the application depends greatly upon the ability of designers to both understand the activation process before they build the application and, more importantly, tune and enhance the application after deployment. Several carriers are actively investigating the feasibility of speech automated handset activations. Having confidence that the handset activation process can be handled reliably via an automated interface in part, enables carriers to significantly broaden the distribution channels for their handsets and thereby attract more subscribers. Already, major consumer retail outlets such as Best Buy or 7-11 are beginning to stock handsets from major wireless carriers. By making it easier and less expensive to activate their handsets, wireless carriers are hoping to rely more on broad sales channels and less on expensive specialty stores.


Service providers are utilizing speech-automated customer service applications to improve customer care and control call center costs. Some carriers are also using speech to enable new distribution channels and to increase revenues through innovative applications. Others are using automation to screen call center applications, ensuring that they hire qualified agents to best represent their company. Looking forward, we can expect to see service providers offering more innovative applications and doing more to take advantage of speech as a way to cut costs, grow revenue and most importantly, provide high quality customer care.



Daniel Enthoven is BeVocal’s director of marketing and an eight-year veteran of the speech industry. Dan has a BA and an MBA from Stanford University.


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