Will Consumers Use Speech?

The automated teller machine (ATM) has become a fixture of the commercial landscape, as ubiquitous as gasoline stations on every corner. But, it was not until the late 1970’s, that banks began installing ATM’s out of fear that customers would not accept them. Today, however, few consumers would consider doing business with a bank that did not offer the speed and convenience of automated services. Change is never easy; particularly when it goes to the core of a business’ relationship with it’s customers. The same fear—will my customers like it?— that made banks reluctant to automate teller services, despite the financial benefits, is making them hesitant to embrace automation in other customer service areas. So what do consumers really think about automated speech solutions? In an effort to better understand consumer perceptions of automated voice systems, Speech Technology Magazine recently commissioned an independent research project designed to evaluate consumer attitudes toward touch-tone, Web-based, automated voice systems and human interaction systems. Using focus groups and usability testing of over 1,000 consumers, the study found that the method of customer service interaction greatly influences customers’ perceptions of a company, which in turn impacts retention and sales. The study also found general acceptance of speech technology-based interfaces, with a preference for a speech interface rather than touchtone. These customers perceive companies using voice automation to be providing more advanced technology and better customer service than companies using touchtone. Consumers are primarily concerned about speed, convenience, accessibility and accuracy regardless of the mode of interaction. Speech technology was found to be an acceptable alternative to a live operator and clearly preferred over touchtone. Obviously there are situations that consumers feel only a human operator can handle. Most of those situations involved highly complex financial transactions or calls concerning complaints. One focus group member aid about this subject, “I can’t vent to a computer. I like taking to humans. I feel secure.” Any automated systems that did not give immediate and accurate feedback or confirmation on basic information like name, address, order completion, etc. were not well received. One user testing an airline reservation system stated, “I want them to repeat the date, time and the gate to verify that the information is correct.” Voice characteristics are another important consideration. The research found that consumers prefer moderately paced, conversational voices, and do not like it when companies try to “fool” them into thinking they are speaking to a real person. Consumers understand that the system is automated. A major concern, however, is being able to reach a live operator when the user believes it is necessary. Most users felt strongly about live operator availability. Some comments, for example, were: ·“I just want to know someone is there to help if the system can’t understand me.” ·“You want customer service to have a live person on the other end…it’s to alleviate frustration.” While interpersonal communication was found to be the most desired method of interaction, it is not without limitations. Lengthy hold times and unpleasant operators are seen as two of the major consumer concerns. Web-based systems are considered to be generally slower, more confusing and harder to access, but consumers like the variety of options offered in a Web-based menu and the ability to print out information. A definite benefit, as viewed by those in the study, is the confirmation that the Web gives. It was concluded that speech systems could be enhanced by offering the kind of confirmation and reliability that is offered by Web-based systems. Most agree that such functionality can be expressed by speech-enabled systems as well. One user from the usability focus groups stated, “Overall, the [Company X] automated system is less time consuming than accessing a Website, and more convenient than the typical customer service hotlines that require you to push multiple buttons for menu options.” Will your customers use speech? Our research indicates that the answer would be “yes”, as long as the speech system meets the customer’s needs and is not a barrier to good service or a live operator. About the study, Michelson said, “It’s been very interesting to learn how consumers perceive companies that use this new technology. We believe the findings will help promote product innovation as well as corporate acceptance of speech technology in their call centers.”
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