Watch Out Siri, Lola and Nina are Making Waves in Customer Service


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The rapid proliferation of smartphones and an appetite for more personal self service has sparked a new dawn in mobile customer service innovation. Developers are creating Siri-like support apps that have the potential to become the consumer’s support channel of choice.

“Steve Jobs–knowingly or not–identified a great opportunity for customer service with Siri, and we are only just now at the tipping point,” says Andy Peart, chief marketing officer for Artificial Solutions.

This opportunity is the company’s ability to accomplish two things at once: provide human-like interactions with customers that don’t involve additional payroll, and feed the consumer’s need for an instant response.

Here’s the direction two innovative companies are taking to capitalize on this.

SRI Launches Lola

Spanish banking giant BBVA had one goal when executives approached SRI International, the research and development organization that developed Siri.

“They wanted to build the Internet bank of the future,” recalls Norman Winarsky, Ph.D., vice president of SRI Ventures, the venture, license development, and commercialization arm of SRI International.

BBVA hired consultants worldwide to figure out what this future would look like for online and traditional banking. One name came up repeatedly: Lola, one of the bank’s top agents.

“They kept saying, no matter what you get the system to do, no one can do what Lola does. She makes [customers] feel connected, happy and secure,” Winarsky says.

SRI decided to create a mobile application that emulated the kind of conversation the real-world Lola delivered–and named it after her. This conversation is nothing like Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems that require prompted keywords to deliver answers. Instead, Lola uses sophisticated NLU algorithms and decades worth of speech recognition data to determine the context and intent of the question, no matter how it’s asked.

For example, a banking customer could ask the application, “What was my balance yesterday?” Lola would recognize that “balance” refers to the dollar amount in the bank account and “yesterday” means to exclude transactions from today.

Lola also remembers the context of the conversation. Continuing the previous example, the customer could then ask, “What about the day before?” Lola understands that the customer is still referring to their account balance, and that “the day before” means to exclude transactions from today and yesterday.

Nuance Names Nina

Customers typically face two common annoyances when they access self-service offerings on a smartphone or tablet. One, they have to type login information and search terms on a tiny keyboard. And two, they have to dig through FAQ or community forum pages to find the answer they are looking for.

Speech is the perfect vehicle for addressing both of these issues. Even though traditional customer service applications might only require tapping through a few pages, that’s enough to stop many consumers conditioned for instant gratification.

“Mobile is this really interesting space where customers now carry around a microphone and a screen in their pocket all day,” says Andy Mauro, senior manager of mobile innovation for Nuance Communications.

His company released in August new mobile customer service technology that capitalizes on this idea for voice-enabled self service. They created a Software Development Kit (SDK) called “Nina” that enables companies to add speech recognition and NLU into an existing mobile application. The result is an app that conversates similar to Lola. “[Apps built with Nina] enable faster, more convenient navigation using your own phrasing,” Mauro explains.

Nuance developers drew on the company’s experience automating more than 10 billion calls annually to teach Nina how to interpret the questions mentioned above. She would also know in back-and-forth conversations, for example, that “yeah,” “yes ma’am,” “sure” and other variations all indicate an affirmative response.

“It’s Happening Like a Tsunami”

These technologies have clearly tapped into an unmet need in the customer service market: better, more enjoyable self service. Customers don’t have to wade through frustrating IVRs, sit on hold, or fish through massive community forums. They get instant answers to their questions from a friendly, virtual agent that already knows everything about them.

“User experience is most natural when it uses what we’ve evolved over millions of years to perfect–language,” Winarsky says, adding interest in Lola has flooded in like a “tsunami” since the release.

Research for this article was provided by Software Advice.

Ashley Furness
Ashley Furness is a technology analyst for research firm Software Advice. She has spent the last six years reporting and writing business news and strategy features. Her work has appeared in myriad publications including Inc., Upstart Business Journal, the Austin Business Journal and the North Bay Business Journal. Before joining Software Advice in 2012, she worked in sales management and advertising.


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