Raging Against the Machine

Monday morning's keynote speaker at the 12th annual SpeechTEK 2006 conference held in New York may either be the event's most revered presenter, or its most hated. Paul English, CTO and founder of travel search engine site Kayak.com, but best known for his headline-grabbing and consumer applauded IVR Cheat Sheet, used his aptly titled presentation, "Rage Against The Machine," to focus on customer frustration with IVRs and tips for alleviating aggravation.

English's IVR Cheat Sheet initiative, which provides shortcuts to bypass IVR systems to reach live CSRs at many organizations, started as a project on his personal blog. But due to overwhelming interest, English, an engineer by training, launched the site www.gethuman.com in February 2006, which along with codes for getting straight to live agents, focuses on improving customer service and support. "More often than not, when I'm calling for customer service…I often feel like a machine, that I'm treated not like a paying customer," English said in his keynote.

Most customer frustration stems from the design of IVR systems, which in many instances are crafted from the company's--not the customer's--perspective. Many deployments don't provide callers with the choice of opting out of automated prompts and connecting to a live agent. "If someone's calling you for customer support, many times they're upset because something has gone wrong…and they need the empathy of a human being," English said. Many systems also couple company jargon that callers don't understand with too many options and prompts, and requiring callers to repeat or reenter information.

English insists that the problem with speech and customer service is caused by "the CEOs who run these call centers." While marketing departments spend money to reach customers, call centers spend money to hide from customers, according to English. "CEOs need a wakeup call," he said. "CEOs need to realize that talking to their customers should be an asset to the company."

But don't expect companies to shy away from deploying these apps. IVRs can substantially slash costs; well-designed IVRs featuring short and easy-to-use prompts can effectively and efficiently allow customers to independently handle basic queries like checking cell phone minute usage. But until executives view their customer relationships as strategic assets, poor service experiences with IVRs will likely continue. And although speech recognition tools allow callers to complete tasks that they can't using touchtone systems like address changes, speech recognition systems, although continuing to improve, must focus on areas like enhancing their ability to recognize accents.

English highlighted "gethuman must haves," elements that he believes must be included in companies' phone customer service efforts, some of which include:

  • provide the zero option to reach a human, or ideally, have a human answer (maybe dedicated lines)
  • provide estimated wait time
  • offer callback option
  • let callers interrupt when appropriate
  • do not disconnect for user errors; instead route to a human
  • allow callers to rate calls

However, there are businesses that "get it," investing in the right process, people, and technology, essentially improving their brand and customer loyalty, according to English. "My message to consumers is this is a revolution not an evolution," he said. "I don't want services to get 10 percent better. I don't want services to get 20 percent better. I want CEOs to think differently about their customers and about how they treat their customers."

Following his keynote, English joined a panel discussion featuring Tim Moynihan, director of product marketing at Intel; Marie Jackson, vice president of global marketing at Intervoice; Peter Mahoney, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Nuance; Stacey White, executive vice president and CFO at Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories; and Bruce Pollock, director of strategic technology solutions at West.

SpeechTEK 2006 marks the first SpeechTEK event under its new home; Information Today, Inc. (ITI), parent company of CRM magazine, recently acquired Speech Technology Magazine and SpeechTEK. John Kelly, who has served as the magazine's publisher and editor-in-chief, will work with ITI on a consulting basis, Tom Hogan, Sr., president and CEO of ITI, noted prior to English's keynote. Some plans for the magazine include expanding it from six issues per year to nine and relaunching inherited Web sites. SpeechTEK 2006 runs through Thursday.


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