We Want YOU to Get This Call

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Outbound interactive voice response (IVR) solutions have a variety of applications—ranging from appointment and prescription refill reminders to flight delay notifications, from collections to public safety alerts—across a variety of industries. Outbound IVR technology is even being used by law enforcement officials to check on elderly homebound residents and to issue targeted Amber alerts to parents in specific groups or geographic areas who are most likely to have seen the missing child.

But no matter the message or type of organization from which it originates, outbound campaigns are only effective if they reach their intended audiences. Imagine his reaction when a 75-year-old gentleman answers a call intended for his 21-year-old granddaughter suggesting that she might like to reserve a table for her and her friends at the city’s hottest techno nightclub for this Friday night. Grandpa is not likely to share his granddaughter’s enthusiasm for the music of Daft Punk accompanying the voice message, and is even less likely to reserve a table for himself and his shuffleboard buddies for later in the week.

Making sure that doesn’t happen is not only good business sense, but in the case of a healthcare application that provides test results to patients, for example, failure to reach the right person can be devastating. Allowing confidential medical information to reach the ears of anyone but the patient himself—considered a serious violation of the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA)—can result in severe criminal and civil penalties, including jail time and fines of $100,000 or more.

And while a voice biometrics solution—one that asks the person on the other end of the phone to confirm his identity based on a prerecorded voiceprint—might be useful in some cases, such as the previous healthcare application or one involving a high-value financial transaction, voice security would be neither practical nor cost-effective in the nightclub scenario.

“Voice biometrics is absolutely feasible,” says David Troy, a sales and communications executive at outbound IVR provider CallFire, “but that type of speech is not readily available for everyone right now.”

And even if it were available, companies employing the technology would still require their customers to enroll—that is, to record a voiceprint in advance of the first outbound IVR phone call—and that’s not easy to do. “It would be really annoying for people, unless they really want or need the information,” says Judith Markowitz, president of J. Markowitz Consultants and a leading expert in voice biometrics. “You’re really trading convenience and user-friendliness for security. It’s a big issue, and there has to be a balance between what your customers are willing to do and what you need to put them through.” 

Cost Considerations

Then comes the cost issue, which alone could make biometrics impractical in most cases. “You could make a better argument for it if you’ll be using it and calling on the same person multiple times,” Markowitz says, “but if it’s a one-time thing, it would be very difficult.” 

One way to circumvent the voice biometrics issue is with a voice prompt that mentions the name of the person being called and asks the person who picked up the phone to press a key to verify that he is, in fact, that person. Another option would be to use some form of knowledge-based security, such as asking for personal information that only the intended call recipient would presumably know. Such protocols, though, are far from foolproof. 

If complex security protocols are necessary, Markowitz advises clients to have more than one system and to have multiple methods and layers of authentication in place. “And it wouldn’t hurt to talk to the attorneys within the organization to see what they have to say,” she says.

But ultimately, “know that you will never get 100 percent security. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and any system is defeatable,” Markowitz concludes. “At some point, you have to stop and say that you can’t do anything more.”

Troy agrees. Most companies are left to “hope, with some degree of certainty, that they’ve reached the right person,” he says.

Coupled with that, though, is another long-standing, related challenge with outbound IVRs: how to handle answering machines. The success of a voice broadcast campaign often depends on accurate detection of answering machines, so that the number can be tried again later or  an alternate message can be played.

In most cases, reaching the intended recipient right away is probably not a matter of life or death—the techno club is not going to be forced out of business if it doesn’t reach the 21-year-old hipster that very second—but there are a growing number of uses for outbound IVR technologies where an immediate response could be crucial. One such instance is for emergency notifications. If an evacuation is ordered and that information is relayed to the public via an outbound IVR, knowing which residents didn’t hear the message could be critical. Instances could also exist where a lot of money might be riding on a timely response, as with some high-value financial transactions. And in the case of credit card fraud detection, a less-than-immediate response could have serious consequences for the individual and the banking institution that issued the card.

The latest outbound IVR technologies, therefore, now bring to bear supporting dialing technologies and algorithms that can detect a live person, answering machine, voicemail system, fax/modem tone, operator intercept tone, busy signal, or ring-no-answer situation.

“Machines are dumb. They need to know whether they are talking to another machine or a person, and then if it’s the right person,” says Stephen Neish, chief financial officer at IVR provider Voxeo. “If it’s a machine, the IVR will have to wait for the [greeting] to finish playing. If it’s a person and the IVR waits the same amount of time, the person has already hung up.”

The real trick in detecting an answering machine, according to Troy, is nailing down typical patterns in how a live person answers the phone compared to a machine. Most people answer the phone by saying “Hello” and then waiting for a response. An answering machine message, on the other hand, usually involves a much longer stream before the first pause: Hi, this is Jane Doe. I’m not in right now, but if you would please leave your name, number, and a brief message, I’ll try to get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks, and have a great day.

Some systems merely guess the length of time the machine’s greeting will take, resulting in either long delays before the message is played or a truncated message left on the machine. Other systems simply play the same answering machine message several times to make sure the message is fully recorded on the machine. Neither of these options is desirable because they both fail to present the company’s message in a professional manner.

CallFire’s system, which is based on its Answer Machine Detection (AMD) logic, uses a combination of beep detection, silence detection, calculations based on the average talk time before a pause, and other variables, and typically achieves between 85 percent and 95 percent accuracy, Troy states. “Our latest version of AMD [rolled out in late April] does increase substantially our accuracy for some clients,” he says. “The latest version has greater sensitivity to sound, lower-volume beeps, background noise, etc.” 

Voxeo says the Call Progress Analysis (CPA) module that can be enabled on its IVR application provides 96 percent accuracy in determining who or what has answered a call. CPA uses advanced digital signal processing and voice activity detection to analyze the audio signal after a call is connected, making it possible to determine whether the answering party is a human speaker, an answering machine, a modem, a fax machine, or a tone. The distinction is made by recognizing recipient speech at the start of the call through recipient interaction, call duration, or recognition of the tone of a machine or special information tones (such as a busy signal or number disconnected). The IVR application then receives the CPA results and, based on those results, can take the appropriate action. If a live person answers, the application can be programmed to play a recorded message or transfer to an agent; if a modem answers, it can hang up, or if it hears fax machine tones it can send a fax. The company can determine how it wants the application to react based on the CPA results.

“With this, you minimize the chance of leaving the wrong information,” Neish says.

Beyond simply detecting how the call was answered, a system that can log that information and deliver it in real time allows the user to identify patterns of customer availability to make dialers more effective in reaching the intended party and to better tailor messages to the customer. “Reporting obviously is an important piece to that,” says Pat Mustico, director of sales at MicroAutomation, which markets an outbound IVR under the MicroMessenger brand name.

A Full Report

With comprehensive reporting, “the benefit is knowing when your clients are reachable,” CallFire’s Troy says, noting that such information could have a huge impact on a company’s earnings potential in the case of a time-critical offer that requires an immediate response from the customer. “It’s also critical for emergency notifications,” he adds. “If I have to call for an evacuation, it’s critical that I know who was not reached right away.”

In those cases, in particular, a multimodal, multichannel approach to an outbound IVR is the way to go, most experts agree.

Enabling the system to call a mobile phone rather than a landline phone—or, in some cases, defaulting to a landline phone and dialing out to a mobile phone as a back-up if the landline phone is not answered—is one way companies are ensuring their messages reach more people sooner. 

Besides the greater likelihood of reaching the individual, bringing the mobile phone into the mix adds more capabilities not typically available with landline phones. “We’re finding a lot more [outbound IVR] tied to email and SMS messages because of the number of mobile devices out there,” says Bruce Pollock, vice president of strategic growth and planning at West Interactive. “[Email and SMS messages] are device-independent. Any phone today can get them, which makes mobile a really good outbound platform.”

That’s especially important when communicating with younger consumers. “With college kids, IM is a very big part of how they do things,” Voxeo’s Neish points out.

Multichannel Options

IVR providers are also turning to multichannel escalation as a means to increase customer response. Through this method, a single campaign can start out via one channel, such as email, and then move to the other channels, such as text message and voice message, in subsequent contact passes. “For a particular campaign, if you want to remind a customer of an appointment, you send a voice message asking him to acknowledge it. If you don’t get a response, you can send a text message, then follow it up with an email a few days later,” explains Mark Friedman, chief marketing and business development officer at SoundBite Communications. 

Multichannel blending is another option. In that scenario, a single customer interaction can take place over multiple communications channels, allowing customers to receive information via one channel and respond via another.

“With multichannel blending, you give your customer the ability to opt in to the different channels: Press 1 for a live operator, press 2 to receive a confirmation email, or press 3 to enter our Web chat portal,” Friedman says. “It’s not about making a choice of one channel over the other. The value of multichannel is using a combination of things to get the largest benefit.”

As an example, he cites a top-20 retailer that had been struggling to get customers to redeem points collected through a loyalty program. Customer response rose by roughly 16 percent when it started sending out customer alerts by email. Customer response was 33 percent higher when it started sending out voice messages. When it combined voice and email together, customer response was 52 percent higher. 

Success, Friedman says, “is often based on the type of campaign and the target audience.”

The multichannel approach “lets a company decide how best to reach its customers and to be really targeted about it,” adds Serge Hyppolite, director of product management at Aspect Software.

As solutions increase in sophistication, many, like West Interactive’s IntelliCast automated outbound notifications, let customers choose how and when they want to be contacted, and even define what kind of information they want to receive. Then, each time the company reaches out to a particular customer, the solution matches the customer with his preferences and the communication is delivered automatically by voice, email, text message, fax, or a combination, without having to switch gears at all.

“It’s about expanding options,” explains Aaron Fisher, director of speech services at West Interactive. “The industry has been trying to look at new verticals and markets, but it hasn’t changed much. So now it’s more about adding on additional services to the existing call types.” 

Among the new services and capabilities, one of the largest is an expanding use of voice, Fisher maintains. “Outbound, for the longest time, didn’t have an interest in voice. It was content with [dual-tone multifrequency] input,” he states. “We’ve seen that starting to change as companies want to take on more functionality.”

Industrywide, change in the area of outbound is being driven largely by recent amendments to the Telemarketing Sales Rules, which are due to take effect in the fall. These changes mandate, among other things, that prerecorded messages can be delivered only to customers who have expressed an interest in receiving them and that the system must give customers a way to opt out at any time.

Customers have taken this one step further, and are demanding a say not only in whether to receive messages, but they want to determine which types of messages they receive and how and when they receive them. That, perhaps more than any other factor, has forced many companies down the multimodal, multichannel path as they seek to match customer preferences with messages delivered by phone, email, text message, direct mail, or fax. 

And though adding those modalities, channels, or other capabilities might seem like a huge ordeal, it really isn’t, the experts agree. “There are a lot of mechanics underneath at work, but from a user standpoint, you’re able to incorporate all the different channels right through the scripting tools,” says John Tallarico, vice president of product management at SoundBite.

“You just have to design the platform from the beginning to be unified and go across media pretty seamlessly,” Hyppolite explains. “That can all be done with VoiceXML, and then it’s even easy to integrate with all your back-end applications.”

“Solutions today can integrate with basically any other system you have,” MicroAutomation’s Mustico adds. “It’s complex, but it’s all business rules-based, and companies already have a lot of email, text messaging, etc., incorporated into [their IVRs].”

Checking in with Outbound IVR

Technology's use expands to the public safety sector.

Since implementing an outbound interactive voice response (IVR) system to check on the elderly and homebound, the Garland County Sheriff’s Department in Hot Springs, Ark., has rescued two people who were in desperate need of medical attention.

The system, called Senior Care and Safety Check, enabled the sheriff’s department to “identify and respond to two cases where people had fallen and couldn’t get up and needed an ambulance,” says Sheriff’s Department Capt. Shelby Terry.

Currently, 26 elderly and homebound residents are enrolled in the free program, which launched in mid-2006. To sign up, residents provide the sheriff’s department with their names, addresses, telephone numbers, emergency contacts, and other personal information, along with a predetermined time that they would like to be called each day between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. An elderly person’s loved ones can also enroll her in the service.

When the system calls, an automated message from the sheriff asks if the person is OK and requests that she press corresponding digits on her phone’s keypad. If the resident presses 1, indicating that everything is OK, no further action is taken. If, however, assistance is needed—indicated by pressing 3 on the phone’s keypad—the system automatically transfers the call to a dispatcher, who can then call contacts and/or send sheriff’s deputies or emergency services personnel to the location as needed.

If the resident does not answer the phone when the call comes in, the system is set to call back three other times at 10-minute intervals. If no one answers after the fourth attempt, the system flags the location for further action by dispatchers.

Sheriff’s deputies typically respond to two or three locations a week. Most of them are cases where the resident went to the doctor or grocery store and wasn’t there to respond when the system called. 

To prevent that, Phoenix-based Database Systems Corp. (DSC), providers of the Garland Sheriff’s Department’s system, offers the “I’m OK” phone service as part of its CAll REassurance (CARE) program. The I’m OK answering service feature allows seniors to call in each day to say, “I’m OK,” thereby pre-empting the automated call. 

In addition to the elderly and homebound, DSC’s CARE system is also a useful tool for parents to check in on their latchkey children. For a set monthly fee, working parents can have the system call their children to make sure they have arrived safely home from school.

Beyond these two uses, outbound IVR technologies have begun to gain traction among other public safety and emergency response organizations for:

  • weather-related announcements;
  • natural disaster alerts;
  • homeland security alerts and announcements;
  • first-responder alerts and call-ups;
  • emergency evacuations;
  • Amber alerts; and
  • victim notifications and alerts.

But even Jerry Pizet, vice president and CARE program manager at DSC, acknowledges these types of applications for outbound IVR technologies fall outside of the norm. Most are not quite so matter-of-life-and-death. Rather, the typical outbound IVR dialogue goes something like this: Good afternoon. This is XYZ Bank. We were reviewing our records and noticed that you have an unsecured mortgage with us. Do you know how to protect yourself from rising interest rates? To speak to a financial consultant now about this, press 1. To schedule an appointment at one of our branches, press 2. To receive information by mail, press 3.

Financial services organizations, along with travel and tourism companies and healthcare providers, were among the earliest adopters of outbound IVR services. And though the technology has been available for a number of years, not much has changed in that regard.

“We continue to have good growth in medical and dental appointment reminders. Travel is also doing quite well for us,” says Bruce Pollock, vice president of strategic growth and planning at West Interactive.

Likewise, SoundBite Communications hasn’t seen a lot of variation in how its outbound IVR technology is used. “We started with a voice messaging platform for collections,” says Mark Friedman, the company’s chief marketing and business development officer. “We’re still doing a lot of customer care, sales and marketing, collections, and fraud detection and alerts.” 

But, like everywhere else in the world, change happens in the speech technology industry. The Garland County Sheriff’s Department’s use of outbound IVR technology is clearly atypical, but it does give a strong indication of where the technology can go.

“People are truly limited only by their imaginations as to what they can do with [outbound IVR],” says Pat Mustico, director of sales at MicroAutomation. —L.K.

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