When Is Speech Technology too Creepy?

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Automated personalization is one of the current top marketing strategies. Companies compare a customer's buying history to that of other similar customers to recommend new purchases, or use phone number, voice, and visual identification to identify and trigger interactions with customers.

But while some personalized marketing practices are "cool," others may be seen as "creepy." It's a challenging balance that speech technology designers and users need to keep in mind as they develop and implement their systems, particularly with the newer tonality and sentiment features.

According to a TrackIf survey, 56 percent of consumers are expressing increasing concern about the amount of personal information used in advertising/marketing. Thirteen percent of survey respondents said that their Web site experiences were always personalized and relevant in making browsing and purchasing decisions. Another 38 percent said their Web site experiences were mostly personalized and helped during their online sessions.

Personalization Benefits Touted

Personalization enables companies to offer customers a more relevant interaction by using the vast amount of information they have from customer searches, loyalty program information, and various internal and external Big Data sources.

But while activities such as Amazon's recommending books based on a customer's buying history are considered convenient and generally accepted, other uses of personalization, like knowing a non-customer's first name, spending habits, etc., are considered creepy.

The creepy-versus-cool balance all depends on how a company approaches personalization, several experts agree.

"People crave personalization," says Rebecca Nowlin-Green, principal business consultant for Nuance Communications. "People giving up their personal information left and right has become the norm."

In addition, despite the TrackIf survey's findings, consumers tend to become more comfortable with various types of personalization as those techniques become more commonplace, Nowlin-Green adds. A decade ago, Amazon's knowledge of past purchases may have seemed disquieting. Now retailers commonly make online suggestions based on a customer's buying history or on what other customers also viewed or purchased.

Similarly, speech technology and other personalization systems that were once creepy are becoming more accepted.

Customers Continue to See New, Cool Technologies

Even personalization technology such as eye verification will likely gain acceptance by most customers, as long as they understand how the technology works and how any personal information is stored and secured, says Dan Weis, senior product manager for Digital Insight, which offers fingerprint identification, eye-vein verification, and other biometric solutions to financial institutions.

In the fall, Indianapolis-based First Internet Bank, a Digital Insight customer, added eye-vein biometric logins to its mobile app. Unlike sci-fi and spy movies, the technology uses photography, not a laser or some other futuristic technology, to scan the eye. Weis likened the technology to identification via a "selfie," so he thinks customers will quickly accept the practice once they get used to it.

Similarly, consumers might have felt apprehensive when banks first introduced inkless fingerprint pads at the teller line—an attempt to combat deposit fraud—many years ago, but they now consider it cool, particularly after Apple adopted it as an iPhone feature.

While providing such information might still seem uncomfortable to some, customers are increasingly giving out personal data to ease subsequent interactions and to receive discounts and rewards from loyalty programs; free products and services; online research; and whitepapers and other literature.

There are other advantages for the customer to divulging personal information. If disconnected from a call, a Web chat, or online ordering, the consumer can easily pick up where he left off. IVRs can use phone numbers, sometimes with some additional information (e.g., the last four numbers on a credit card), to quickly identify the customer, speeding the phone call by eliminating a couple of steps. The customer can avail himself to offers provided exclusively to "loyal" customers.

People value anything that saves them time, so if a company uses personalization to eliminate steps during the checkout process, consumers are often all for it, says Michael Boeke, vice president and product manager for Synap.

However, such information, including cookies in Google and other kinds of information provided by third parties, can also enable a company to serve up Web ads, send text messages, and make outbound calls that can be not only creepy but annoying.

So companies using speech and other personalization systems for outbound marketing need to determine the right frequency of customer contacts, and the kind and amount of data they can obtain from customers.

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