Nik Philpot, Chief Operating Officer, Eckoh Technologies

Q How did Phoneworld come about?

A We have a division of Eckoh called Phones Express which sells mobile phones on contract to niche audiences using print media. We would, for example, go into sailing or yachting magazines with durable, waterproof handsets at a price that suited that kind of lifestyle. What Auctionworld sought to do was similar: selling mobile phones that were targeted propositions for particular parts of their audience. We started investigating running a TV shopping channel that was dedicated to this kind of activity -- not just selling mobile phones but also looking at the new technology, things like Bluetooth and 3G. Selling things but, hopefully, providing valuable content to the mobile user.

So, we came up with these propositions which were very much like an infomercial, much like you would see on a home shopping channel, but they went into what the features of mobile phones are and how to select features that match your lifestyle. We've been planning this for the last six months. We launched the channel on February 1.

Q Why did you think a TV channel like that would be necessary?

A Here in the UK, and possibly in the states, there's a plethora of handsets and different contracts. For the consumer it's enormously confusing. If you walk into a store they probably don't have the time to tailor something to you as an individual and sometimes stores are a little bit intimidating because they tend to be driven by the "use end," fashion-driven part of the market.

Q Aren't mobile phones the kind of product you need to hold in your hand, feel, and see?

A People may well need to do that but they are not necessarily going to buy when they do that. If they are sitting at home and they see a phone they're already familiar with at an absolutely fantastic price they will buy. Also, the numbers that we were generating on Auctionworld showed us there is a market for this.

Q How did the idea of a speech-recognition fulfillment process come about?

A Auctionworld has a traditional call center in their back office. They have an IVR system for taking the bids on the item but when someone has a successful bid Auctionworld's call center calls them and they go through a traditional fulfillment process. That is a big cost for Auctionworld and one they didn't want to duplicate with Phoneworld . Because we knew we were going to be selling different flavors of the same product -- a mobile phone on a contract with a certain bundle of accessories -- it seemed possible to automate at least some of this. It was in both our interests to minimize the cost of operating the new channel as much as we possibly could and to make sure the call-center staff were focusing in on the important stuff rather than checking names and addresses.

Q How much of it is automated?

A It is totally automated. When we spec-ed out how the service would work and which parts we felt we could cover using speech technology we found that we could pretty much do everything except where the consumer had issues of some sort -- maybe they ordered one phone and then saw another that would be better for them and wanted to change their order. So, we built an end-to-end fulfillment product.

Q What is the fulfillment system like?

A It's in three sections. The first section verifies the product code they are interested in. All of the shows have a product code. The caller inputs verbally or manually. It is currently a 6-digit string but we are also looking at product codes that are name-based rather than number-based, such as Nokia-1 rather than a digit string.

The second is the name and address section where we are using our Post Code Reader product which tries to automatically arrive at the caller's address. The difficulty we have here in the UK as compared with the States is that our zip code is alphanumeric rather than simply numeric. That's something of a challenge. In terms of linking the householder's name to the address, there are very few public sources of data to do that in the UK. The Electoral roll is one of the few to do it but it will never be completely up to date.

Then there's the payment section which is simply getting their credit card or debit card details. We do an on-the-fly secure authorization process: Checking if it's a valid card, if it's a valid card holder, if the card isn't stolen or hot listed, that they have credit, etc. If everything checks out we authorize the transaction.

It takes on average four minutes for a caller to complete an order from start to finish.

Q What kinds of accuracy rates are you getting for the names and addresses?

A In terms of address verification we get somewhere in the mid-80s percentile where the full address is completely transcribed by the system. But you can never get 100 percent success on the name because the data source is never up-to-date as people move from place to place. But even here, we are getting what we think are acceptable levels: with percentages in the mid 70s.

As far as the user is concerned there is no difference between when the automated system can successfully transcribe a name or address or cannot do it. When we can't identify somebody's name and address we simply collect the data and it's transcribed later by the back office staff. They load up the information on a Pop screen and if there's anything missing they click onto the .wav file and transcribe it straight into the field.

Q How do you determine there's an error - through confidence levels?

A It's by looking at confidence levels, points in the service where an error routine has been triggered, and also points in the service where callers have been asked for a confirmation and have replied negatively. So, for example, in the name and address section we ask the caller to confirm that their details are correct.

Q How well has the speech system been working?

A We are getting an extremely high success rate in terms of the number of people who are calling and going all the way through successfully. In terms of proving if automation was the right thing to do, I think we've done that already. What is interesting is that now not only do we have the channel live and significant orders flowing through, so we've proved the market is there for the channel. We've also proved that we can minimize the cost of running the channel with this backend process. That is interesting for us going to other channels and reselling this type of backend solution.

Q How do you evaluate how well the system is working as a whole?

A We use a very intensive stats tool to interrogate all our services so that we get a huge amount of information about how the users are actually using the application so we know where people have had problems, where they've gone into error routines, and exactly where people leave applications, and exactly how successful the speech rec is. That's hugely important. So if we find, for example, that we have a particular regional issue we can also take that into account as well. We've already made a revision to the service -- even after two weeks -- taking into account a couple of those things.

Q What about hang-ups and other user-acceptance issues?

A The number of people who hang up at a stage where you would suppose it is related to encountering an automated service is extremely low. If people were not happy with what they heard I think we would see a much greater proportion of people hanging up.

There are a number of reasons for that. One is that we launched Phoneworld with the speech fulfillment in place and it's all customers are used to. Secondly, we're making people aware they're going to go through an automated service by promoting this fact on air. We've also given it an identity. It's referred to as Fiona. So, the presenters talk about Fiona saying it's a very friendly system that will take all your details.

We are very encouraged, given that we are going into our fourth week and we haven't put any marketing behind the channel yet. That kicks in in March. We're going slowly because we wanted to see if there were any issues to iron out.

Q If you haven't started advertising Phoneworld how do people find out about the channel?

A What was interesting was that within hours of turning the channel and we already had orders.

People just channel up and surf. They use the Sky electronic index of channels and programs. You have a lot of people going through the index looking at channels they may not ever have heard of and we're getting a lot of eyeballs that way.. The same thing happened with Auctionworld when it launched back in Nov 2001. The sorts of levels of orders we're expecting to see in the first three months of trade from Phoneworld are equivalent to putting 250 shops on the High Street. We've proved that consumers will buy phones off TV and that they'll use an end-to-end-speech product.

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