Give Computers the Gift of Gab


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When Lloyds TSB first introduced telephone banking five years ago with call center agents, it found customers reluctant to discuss their personal financial details over the phone. Once Lloyd’s implemented an automated teller that enabled customers to examine their accounts in privacy, use of its telephone banking service took off. Lloyds TSB, with bank branches throughout the United Kingdom, uses advanced speech technology to handle millions of calls a week.

Self-service (IVR) and speech recognition are pervasive in contact centers around the globe. However, initially many user interfaces were poorly designed, leading to widespread consumer frustration. Poorly implemented self-service and speech recognition systems cause consumers to opt out to live agents or hang up in disgust. Before blaming the systems, consumers should be aware that it is generally not the voice automation technology that is the problem but, rather, the way in which it is implemented.

Speech recognition is coming of age, giving computers the ability to listen and reply in simple conversations that are bridging the language gap between people and machines to change the way business is conducted.

In my 20 years in the contact center and self service industry, I have seen more and more companies creating virtual contact centers that eliminate walls and boundaries—business, technical and geographic—fostering communication with customers and employees. Speech recognition is one of the leading technologies making this virtualization possible.

Expanded capability

Improvements in speech recognition technologies have been steadily expanding the capabilities of computers to understand voice commands, making it possible to replace touch-tone keypad responses over the telephone with spoken replies. A wide range of businesses across industries such as financial services, airlines, entertainment services, hotels, utilities and government agencies are implementing speech recognition telephony applications that complete recurring tasks without needing to involve a human operator.

Over the past few years, speech recognition applications have improved to include large complex vocabularies that go well beyond simple commands like yes or no, and the newest speech synthesizers can sound much like a real person talking rather than a machine.

A customer can verbally transfer funds between bank accounts, make flight reservations or order concert tickets speaking only to a computer. Automating these types of transactions frees up a company’s call center staff to focus on more complex customer needs while contributing large savings to customer service budgets. An industry analyst, Zelos group, estimates a traditional call center can reduce the cost per customer call from $4 to $10 to between 10 and 40 cents through automation. Customer satisfaction also improves through reduced waiting times.

Speech recognition is listed as one of the top 10 technologies likely to have the greatest impact on business through to 2007, according to Gartner. An Allied Business Intelligence study estimates that the speech recognition market could grow to $53 billion globally by 2008 from its current $1 billion.

Part of the growing appeal of speech recognition applications is they have become increasingly intuitive and faster to use than keypad responses. I believe possible accuracy thresholds ranging from 96 percent to 98 percent can be achieved in properly implemented speech recognition applications. Instead of giving one-word responses for each step through a long menu of questions, your customer can speak a sentence, and the application will pick out multiple key words to select the appropriate response and complete the transaction much more quickly than navigating multiple menus.

An American health services company with 2 million customers is using speech recognition to relieve a problem with a big patient backlog in its system for confirming medical appointments. The company established a toll-free number and was able to eliminate more than 30 different telephone and fax numbers. Now it takes one quick call to set up and confirm an appointment.

Let your web pages do the talking

Using industry standards such as Voice eXtensible Markup Language (VXML), Call Control eXtensible Markup Language (CCXML) and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) to give voice recognition capabilities to web applications, speech recognition is giving people the option of accessing web site information on the computer or listening to it by telephone. Having industry standards has strengthened the credibility of the speech solutions industry, because everyone is designing applications to the same standard, and business executives believe their investments are protected because they can buy applications from more than one vendor.

Bringing voice to web applications gives people real-time access to information whenever they need it, regardless of location. The big advantage is that you don’t have to re-design the entire application on your web site to make it accessible by telephone. The two industry standards for formatting—HTML and XML—work together. Text can easily be transferred to spoken information.

As with any new technology, as the use of speech technology becomes more widespread, the consumer’s comfort level with it increases. Over the next two years, I predict speech recognition will become more and more commonplace until, like so many applications, we’ll wonder what we ever did without it.

Tricia Schneider
Tricia Schneider is a manager of product marketing for Multimedia Application Solutions at Nortel. Her responsibilities include product marketing, positioning, sales support and market development. She has more than 20 years of experience in the industry in sales, channel marketing, business development and professional services.


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