Wes Hayden, CEO and President, Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories

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At its G-Force user conference in San Diego in late April, Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories released the results of a survey that found growing acceptance of automated interactive voice response (IVR) systems in the call center, and some very telling statistics about overall customer satisfaction with call centers in general. Following that conference, Speech Technology Senior Editor Leonard Klie had the opportunity to sit down with Wes Hayden, president and CEO of Genesys, to discuss the state of call centers and the speech technologies that are a mainstay within the call center environment.

Speech Technology: In the September/October 2006 issue of Speech Technology magazine, you wrote a piece entitled "Is Paul English Right?" In that article, you argued that English, a well-known critic of automated IVR systems and founder of the GetHuman movement, was not right in most cases. Has anything changed since then to revive the customer service versus IVR debate or reshape it in any way?
Hayden: The debate is a good debate, focusing on the real question of what’s the right way to deal with customers, when to use self-service, and when to use a more personal touch. Things have changed, but it’s been an evolutionary change. Speech recognition technology has changed to the point that the results are better when you use an automated speech-enabled system, but on top of that, people have gotten much smarter in their thinking about how to design applications and are much more sensitive to the fact that people do not want to be trapped in an IVR forever. What we see happening is that customers are really starting to think about the best way to handle their customers and to be more sensitive to the issues that create frustration when they call a call center and are trapped in an IVR that they can’t get out of.

ST: So then the debate should still go on, and in many cases, has actually worked to the advantage of the industry and the customer?
Hayden: Absolutely. One of the things we’re starting to believe is that, if used properly, proactive communication through the right media channel can be a very valuable tool. You can preempt some of the calls customers make that would normally go to a self-service, speech-enabled IVR, and essentially have happier customers along the way. I think there are a combination of things happening that are improving the experience for the customer, and the fact that companies are paying attention to it is probably one of the most critical components of the change.

ST: Can an IVR and great customer service coexist, and if so, how?
Hayden: People have been focused on the applications that have been unsuccessful more than on the applications that have been successful. Think about what has been accomplished with things like just calling in to check the status of a flight. Compare today to the old days, when you had a number to call and they put you on hold right away because there was only one agent there to give you flight information. You were on hold for a period of time, and when you finally got a hold of someone, their job was to book reservations and generate revenue for the airline, and here you were trying to ask when a flight was scheduled to arrive. The caller was frustrated because it took way longer than it needed to find out a very simple piece of information, and the reservation agent was frustrated because he or she is there to generate revenue. By creating a simple speech-enabled system to do this, everybody’s happy. Those kinds of applications are making the biggest difference in the landscape right now. With even simple self-service applications, when they are done right, everyone is happier than when companies try to use live agents to answer the simplest questions.

ST: Genesys recently completed a customer satisfaction survey in which there were some pretty compelling things that came out about how customers feel about IVR and what they are doing when they’re using it. How does that weigh into the whole debate about customer satisfaction versus IVR?
Hayden: Today, there’s definitely a higher acceptance of an automated IVR than there used to be. People used to always prefer talking to a live person because they were so frustrated, but there have been enough good experiences now with automation. Simple things like a call back when you’ll be on hold for a while are the kinds of changes that go a long way to improve how people feel about dealing with a call center.

ST: In the survey, there were a few stumbling blocks people cited as reasons they might be dissatisfied with an IVR. One was hold times, and another was recognition errors. How is the speech industry addressing these issues?
Hayden: In the survey, we asked people for the top three things that frustrate them with IVRs, and the answers we got were the same ones that frustrated people three or four years ago. I suspect that when we ask the same questions three or four years from now, the answers will still be the same. People have long memories for bad experiences when calling into a call center. Being put on hold is something everybody hates, but it is becoming less frequent as the industry realizes there are ways to address the on-hold that leave the customers feeling better about the system, even if they don’t get an immediate answer. Getting you to the right person because the system knows who you are and why you are calling, and routing you to the right person the first time has become something that is not the exception but the rule. Getting the wrong agent or a person who can’t help is the exception. These are the kinds of things that are impacting changes in attitudes toward call centers, but the current list of things people are dissatisfied about with call centers are probably not going to change because they’re so deeply engrained in us. They used to be so frequent.

ST: What role will new speech recognition technologies, like the open-ended how can I help you sort of free-flowing dialogue have in changing perceptions about IVR?
Hayden: As companies start to develop applications that are good candidates for speech recognition technology, and as consumers start to get used to dealing with speech recognition technology more often, I think they will have a huge impact, but these two things have to go hand in hand. We’re still in an early adoption phase where when someone gets a free-form prompt, he’s not really sure if the system will understand and take him to the right place. You’re going to see a gradual increase in acceptance and an increase in satisfaction with these types of systems as time moves on. There’s no question about that.

ST: Do you think speech in the call center will grow, whether in different applications altogether or in different things that current applications might be able to handle?
Hayden: Absolutely. Within the last year, we started to see the emergence of speech branding, using voices to communicate better with certain demographic groups. Certain companies, like Virgin Mobile USA, use characters like Simone to appeal to that demographic. I think we may see more of that. A lot of times, though, people do not want a lengthy setup and do not want to hear the background of this fictional person who has been created to represent the brand; they just want to go in and get some quick information, and the industry needs to recognize that and make sure that those kinds of inquiries can be addressed promptly without a lot of fanfare. That’s where you get the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to self-service applications.

ST: Where do you see speech going outside of the call center?
Hayden: There are definitely opportunities for key applications outside of the call center, like directory assistance. Also, an area that still has fairly high potential but has not seen a huge investment on the part of the business community is in the area of internal self-service opportunities, for an employee wanting to change around his 401-K, the status of his health insurance, etc. Those can also be done through an automated, speech-enabled system, a system not used to help boost communication between a company and its customers but to help with communication between a company and its employees.

ST: What are the critical issues that the speech industry has yet to address?
Hayden: The biggest inhibitor today is still complexity. Most of the applications using speech technology still require a fair amount of customization and special work. In some cases, that makes it difficult to cost-justify. Applications have to have a clear ROI and be proven out before we will see the level of adoption that is certainly possible. If we can reduce the complexity and the total cost of ownership, I don’t think there are other inhibitors. I believe that the technology has come to the point where acceptance for well-designed applications is no longer a stumbling block.

ST: Where do VoiceXML and some of the other standards fit into that, and how far off is widespread adoption of those standards?
Hayden: It’s happening as we speak. At Genesys, we’re seeing sales of our VoiceXML platform being driven by a desire of companies to implement speech-enabled solutions, and clearly the VoiceXML platform is the most effective way to deliver them. We’ve seen sales in that area grow up to 40 percent year after year. We have more than 500 customers and more than 200,000 ports on VoiceXML in the marketplace right now.
VoiceXML is a huge area of investment for us because what we see, contrary to conventional wisdom that says a standard platform will become a commoditized item, is that there are a huge number of features that our customers want to see added to the platform. That’s why we’ve made the acquisitions that we did and why we have one of the largest teams of VoiceXML engineers on the market today.

ST: What has Genesys been up to, and what can we expect to see from the company in the next few months?
Hayden: One of the key things that we see happening is the whole notion of the total customer experience as a sequence or chain of events as opposed to a single interaction. The ability to tie customer interactions together so that customers realize that they do not have to repeat themselves and that you understand where they’ve been and what they are trying to achieve. This will give our clients the ability to create a different customer service environment. What you will see from us will be a continued focus on providing technology to enable this complete customer service chain environment.

Call Centers Are Doing a Better Job
Satisfaction scores improve, but call centers need to be more proactive

Despite rumors to the contrary, customer service through call centers is improving, according to survey results released at Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories’ G-Force user conference in San Diego in late April.

The survey, involving nearly 4,500 consumers throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, found that more than 61 percent of consumers see call centers as doing a better job today than they did three years ago. Twenty-three percent reported experiences that were "significantly better" and 38 percent deemed them "somewhat better." Those positive experiences have a significant impact on customer loyalty, as 75 percent said they would give more business to a company based on a great contact center experience.

Only 12 percent of respondents felt that the call center experience had gotten worse. In those cases, 40 percent said they stopped doing business with a company after a bad call center experience.

Among those bad experiences, 76 percent reported feeling pushed to use self-service systems. The biggest cause of customer frustration, though, was long hold times (reported by 67 percent of respondents), something that can be easily overcome by offering callers the option of a call-back. Seventy-four percent of respondents said they would like that option and would use it if given the choice.

Other call center sore spots identified included poor automation (with 57 percent of respondents citing frustration with too many prompts or incorrect options); and having to repeat information that they’ve already given (cited by 52 percent of respondents).

But despite their successes, companies can and should do more to make their customer service more proactive, noted Nicholas DeKouchovsky, director of marketing and business development at Genesys.

In the survey, 89 percent of consumers expressed a desire for more proactive communications by companies, either by phone, email, Web chat, or text message. A full 95 percent of respondents said they would even be receptive to cross-selling or upselling opportunities, depending on the context and communication method. When asked how they would like to be contacted, 82 percent said the phone, followed by email (78 percent); Web chat (28 percent); and text message to a cell phone (2 percent).

The next generation of customer service, therefore, will need to be more multichannel, incorporating phone, email, Web chat, text message, and more. "The Internet and contact center need to come together," DeKouchovsky said.

Facilitating those types of interactions is the expansion of VoiceXML as the platform of choice for many call center applications. "Clearly, VoiceXML is taking off," said Wes Hayden, president and CEO of Genesys, noting that about 500 Genesys customers are currently using VoiceXML across more than 200,000 ports.

"Genesys embraced VoiceXML very early on and is committed to developing it further, explained David Radoff, director of public relations and analyst relations at Genesys. "We’re finding the tipping point earlier than 2008, seeing more companies switching over to VXML sooner."

Still, Daniel Hong, a senior analyst at Datamonitor, predicted that most companies will have switched over by 2009, mainly because of the flexibility that VoiceXML provides. He noted that more than 30 percent of the 600,000 IVR ports shipped in 2005 were based on VoiceXML, and by 2010, VoiceXML is expected to make up more than 70 percent of all IVR ports shipped.

"The beauty behind VXML is the number of vendors supporting it, so there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of whom you go with," he said. "There’s also a very large amount of choice in the tools and development, with a lot of drag-and-drop graphic user interfaces." — LK

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