'Press 1' for Caller Thoughts

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NEW YORK — As SpeechTEK 2008’s opening day unfolded at the Marriott Marquis on August 18, a panel discussion digging into the state of the speech technology industry started off with one simple question: What do end users—the customers calling into contact centers—think about interactive voice response (IVR) systems, speech technology, and touchtone automation?

Simple: They don’t.

"Users don’t really think about IVR [and] the interface," independent marketing consultant Monique Bozeman of Bozeman Consulting, said to a standing-room-only crowd.

If that comes as a surprise to the industry, she said, then the shock is merely indicative of the self-absorption rampant among vendors in today’s speech technology marketplace. She argued that while vendors are focused on the latest technology in the space, at the end of the day users are more concerned with the service they receive. However, she said, this space is not alone inits introspective view. "This is like any other technology industry you find today," she added.

Vendors focused solely on technology itself can lead to distortions in their market research. There may be inaccuracies in what they believe callers really think about the speech technology deployed at a contact center, according to two additional panel members, Tim Pearce, global solutions manager of self-service at Dimension Data, and Mike Bergelson, director of product management for customer contact at Cisco Systems. The two men disclosed the results of Dimension Data’s second annual Speech Alignment Index, which determines whether vendors and end users are on the same page regarding speech recognition applications. This year, 1,800 consumers and 240 speech technology vendors participated in the global survey.

According to Dimension Data’s research, overall alignment is at 74 percent between vendors and consumers. This marks an increase of 3 percentage points over last year. While the boost is a good sign, more work needs to be done, Pearce argued. "We must increase the alignment in order to penetrate more markets," he declared. "Otherwise, it’s like pushing water uphill."

The most telling statistic from the study came when the question of how often callers prefer speech was asked. Forty-five percent of customers surveyed said "as little as possible," while only 9 percent of vendors chose the same response. Additionally, 23 percent of customers remarked that "it depended on the reason for the call," while 43 percent of vendors selected  that response. This led Bergelson to explain that vendors and companies need to provide a compelling reason why speech automation is necessary beyond touchtone or live-agent automation. "We need to use speech when it improves an interaction, when it has a unique value over touchtone," he said.

Bergelson went on to stress that speech automation is just one piece of the IVR puzzle. Touchtone and live agents are also important, and the triumvirate must work together for companies and customers to truly benefit. "Consider automation as part of the overall customer workflow," he said. "We need to think in the broader context of what the caller is trying to do. Put the customer first."

That was a point illustrated by Jenni McKienzie, a VUI designer for Travelocity, during another session about balancing what business owners want when designing IVR systems with what will make the experience easiest on the caller. "You have to figure out the actual problem beneath the solution you’ve been presented by the company," McKienzie said. "Does the caller actually share in this problem, or is it purely driven by business needs?"

If, as a designer, you decide the caller has no problem and the business just wants to add things, argue like crazy against it or minimize the impact if you lose, McKienzie said. To do this, come up with a solution to the problem, and present it to the business owner along with the logic and data that drove you to it, she suggested.

"Emphasize the caller experience over and over," McKienzie said. "It’s your best argument."

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