Please hold…

Picture of Tin cans 'You are 24th in the queue and your call should be answered in approximately 20 minutes – please hold…' is not good enough, says Caroline Leathem of Fluency Voice.

Speech recognition technology is transforming customer service. Intolerance of poor contact centre experiences is at an all-time high in the UK. Yet the biggest bugbear of all is not only that services are being sent offshore, but the time it takes the caller to get through. 

All too often the caller's query is so simple that it could have been directed in seconds to an automated speech agent. Instead they are forced to endure seemingly endless touch-tone options, then frequently connected to the wrong department only to face the frustration of repeating their information again. 

Customer responsiveness can make or break a business. Where service is slow and poor, organisations may find themselves jeopardising years of hard-won customer loyalty.

From mobile phone providers to insurance companies and flight booking services, if you are offering a product or service that could be easily obtained from a competitor, a poor call centre experience could undermine all of the brand values established by expensive marketing campaigns, handing your customer base on a plate to your nearest rival.

That's why organisations are turning to intelligent speech recognition solutions in droves. While interactive touch-tone operator solutions can divert some of the workload from overstretched call centre agents, speech technology can achieve so much more.

Even allowing web content to be 'read out' over the phone, speech solutions that co-exist with or replace touch tone are the closest companies can get to live agent service without the cost of recruiting additional staff.

Open all hours

Thanks to the internet, customers now expect round-the-clock customer service, whether that’s the ability to pay a gas bill, check holiday reservations or transfer money between two bank accounts.

The cost of manning call centres outside normal office hours is grossly prohibitive, though - if a business went down this route, the benefits of offering a superior service would be undermined immediately by the extra costs that would have to be passed on to the customer.

Speech technology bridges that gap. So sophisticated is the technology today that organisations like Travelodge are using virtual speech agents  to fill their hotel rooms throughout the night, without an operator having to be on call to take the bookings.

By providing a voice interface to its website, Travelodge has enabled customers to identify their nearest hotel, establish availability and a rate, and get verbal directions, at 2am from a lay-by. Not so easy with a touch-tone system!

This innovative thinking has enabled Travelodge to fill more rooms while keeping its prices competitively low.

More efficient contact centre agents

While no organisation would abandon its manned call centre activities altogether, those that also provide an automated speech solution offer important benefits:

  • Call queues are slashed, assuring customers of the slick service they crave;
  • Virtual agents that are designed with a persona to match the company brand;
  • 24/7 self-service access;
  • Agents' time is freed up to be used on more complex calls where real human interaction is critical;
  • Numbers of agents can be reduced from handling mundane calls as increasing numbers of customers choose the speech self-service option for its speed and efficiency.

The good news is that consumers are more accepting of automated speech technology than ever before, according to Fluency research in 2006.

The study, in which 100 consumers were asked to trial speech for an activity such as ordering a holiday brochure or paying a gas bill, found an overwhelmingly positive response to the experience.

81 per cent of participants (across all age groups) liked the facility, especially for its potential to speed up the call activity (cited by two-thirds) and reduce queues (49 per cent).

Most taking part concluded that they would be happy to use a speech service particularly for obtaining information such as requesting a brochure, arrival/departure times, account balances, location of services, and anticipated maximum potential in the public sector, travel/transport, utilities, retail, banking and insurance industries.

Try before you buy

Recognising the importance of personalisation in its application of the technology, for example, Powergen has used its speech solution to offer callers only the options that are relevant to their account and circumstances, eliminating one of the annoyances with standard touchtone-based automated operators.

By transforming a large facet of their call centre operations so cost-efficiently, organisations can avoid moving their customer facing activities offshore, too, further enhancing customers' perception of the experience - and therefore the company brand.

Big or small, an option for all

The technology has as much to offer small companies as to large enterprises. From Barclaycard, Standard Life Bank, JD Williams and EDF Energy to a whole host of more modest-sized, regional water companies and public sector departments, speech solutions are transforming customer service activities and making organisations slicker.

It is no coincidence that, as the technology continues to grow in sophistication, sales of speech-operated customer service solutions are growing by nearly 23 er cent per year.

The ability to test the technology using a pay-as-you-go remotely hosted solution has whetted many organisations’ appetite. For most, once they see what's possible, they wonder how they ever ran their customer service operation without it…

15 March 2007