Contact Center Solutions Featured Article

The Evolution of Customer Service: Speech Solutions for the Care 2.0 World

October 19, 2007
By ContactCenterSolutionsWorld Special Guest
Jeff Foley, Marketing Solutions Manager, Nuance Communications -

We can all remember the days of placing customer service calls only to hear irritating messages such as “Please call back between our regular business hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.” While this level of service was previously acceptable, over the years we’ve witnessed a shift in customer needs and demands, drastically changing the quality of service customers expect when calling organizations.

When the Web first enabled 24x7 access, customers responded with higher expectations for access to dynamic information and transactions on a time schedule dictated by them. Internet search capabilities empowered consumers with the independence to get information on their own terms. Further, the proliferation of mobile devices is fueling consumer expectations for even more timely and portable access to information and service -- pushing the concept of anywhere, anytime access to a whole new level.

At the same time, growing competition and rapid commoditization have made it increasingly difficult for companies to achieve enduring market differentiation and to secure customer loyalty. As more consumers demand excellent service and ascribe value to companies based on the quality of their interactions, customer experience has emerged as a critical factor in gaining and maintaining competitive advantage. Today, business is being conducted in what can be referred to as a “Care 2.0” environment, where companies are required to make the most of every interaction in order to satisfy the expectations of increasingly savvy, highly mobile customers who feel entitled to great service.

This environmental shift necessitates a change in the way companies approach care and respond to customers. Companies can no longer afford not to care, and those that choose to ignore this changing dynamic will soon find themselves lagging behind quick-reacting competitors. Simply put, the company that provides the most satisfying customer experience across all access points wins.

Touchtone vs. Speech in the Care 2.0 Environment

Despite the introduction of self-service systems and customer service improvements over the years, many contact centers continue to frustrate callers by forcing them to navigate touchtone menus only to be connected to the wrong place or to be completely blocked from reaching an agent when really needed. Forward-looking companies are starting to develop customer experience management strategies that serve to optimize interactions—not just for customers, but for business partners and employees as well. They are listening more, gathering more knowledge about customers, and working to provide greater ease of access—to information, services, and people.

According to Forrester Research, managing high-value customer interaction is becoming impossible with decades-old touchtone systems. Traditional self-service systems simply can’t meet customer expectations in a Care 2.0 world, particularly if customers have complex issues. Drawbacks of these systems include:

--Inefficient routing of calls that result in speaking with multiple agents
--Too many menus
--Inaccurate information
--Difficulty inputting information, such as account numbers and names

Frustrated by lengthy touchtone self-service interactions that too often end in opt-outs to a live agent, customers are demanding more usable applications that make it easier to quickly resolve issues. As a result, speech applications are playing an increasingly pivotal role in defining the customer care experience. Companies are investing in speech-based self-service solutions to meet growing demand for convenient 24x7 access to information, transactions, and customer service. The most successful of these speech solutions balance automation with usability to deliver self-service interactions designed and managed from the customer’s point of view. Relying heavily on speech recognition, these solutions drive higher business performance, increase automation rates, enable more efficient phone-based interactions and improve customer satisfaction.

Today’s speech-based systems can effectively ignore background noise, measurably improving speech clarity and raising accuracy rates dramatically for wireless, hands-free, and noisy environments. This allows today’s multi-tasking and increasingly mobile customers to make service-related calls from virtually any location for maximum convenience. Beyond core accuracy improvements, today’s speech-based systems also deliver more accurate natural language capabilities to efficiently handle open input and to power mixed-initiative dialogs. The result is an improved caller experience, shorter call times, fewer misrouted calls, and higher automation, for a compelling ROI.

Speech-Based Call Steering

One specific example of a speech-based system that can help organizations thrive is a Care 2.0 world is call steering. The natural language capabilities of today’s speech systems are particularly effective when used for call steering applications to overcome the large and confusing phone menus that often make it difficult for callers to find what they need. Unlike touchtone systems, whose complex menu mazes can lead to misrouted calls and a bad customer experience, speech-based systems allow customers to describe their needs in their own words and move directly to their destination, so that organizations can direct inbound calls more accurately, more efficiently, and with higher caller satisfaction.

At best, most IVR menus can offer a caller four or five options at a time. Any more options must be buried in submenus so as not to overwhelm the caller. With confirmations, repeats, and backtracking, the resulting conversation is very time consuming and can be frustrating to the caller. A call steering system offers one simple prompt from which all destinations can be reached. For example, if a caller needs an address to send in a bill payment, rather than navigating three menu levels (perhaps choosing “Payments,” followed by entering account info, followed by “Payment options”, and finally “Mailing address”) the caller could say, “Yeah, ummm, where do I need to send my payment?”

Speech-based call steering systems route and automate calls more accurately than a touchtone-based IVR application by taking advantage of the benefits provided by a speech interface. By encouraging shorter and more efficient interactions with callers, call steering not only reduces misroutes but also creates a more positive caller experience.

With a touchtone IVR, the caller must adapt to the system’s needs by trying to self-classify his request and navigate the menu options. With a speech-based call steering implementation, the system adapts to the caller’s needs by categorizing the caller’s request automatically, and letting callers focus on speaking their requests in their own words instead of navigating menus. For example, a caller who is moving may not know whether his call is related to Billing and Payments, Products and Services, or Account Information. With call steering, the caller could say, “I’m moving to a new address and need to uh change my, um, service?”

A touchtone system typically features long prompts listing all the possible options for a caller to remember. In contrast, a call steering system offers brief instructions and a few examples. After the opening welcome, a typical touchtone system may take about a minute to go through several top-level categories. A call steering implementation could replace that extensive list of prompts with “Just briefly tell me what you are calling about.”

A caller who does not immediately identify the correct category for his request may become frustrated with a touchtone system and seek an agent immediately for routing help. Speech-based call steering presents an easy opportunity for a caller to say their request and give the system a chance to succeed. Speech-based call steering systems can help reduce the agent staffing levels contact centers would otherwise require to route calls manually. For example, a person with a question about their retail credit card may not realize they need to choose “Other departments” at the main menu, as “Questions about credit cards” is not listed in the main menu’s initial four options.

The cost savings from a reduction in misrouted calls and an improved automation rate translates directly into time saved by customer service representatives who would otherwise manually route or handle the caller’s inquiry. The lighter agent load can translate into millions of dollars in savings. For example, a contact center handling 25M calls/year that decreased their misroute rate by 10% would correctly route an additional 2.5M calls/year. Assuming that misrouted calls take an additional 0.8 minutes of agent time, this saves 2.0M min/year. Assuming that agents cost $0.60/min, this translates into $1.2M/year of savings on misroutes alone—before including ROI from an improved automation rate and higher customer satisfaction.

Speech for a Care 2.0 World

With customers ascribing value to a company based on their experiences across self-service channels, it’s critical that companies implement self-service applications that deliver a superior customer experience, boost business performance, and provide strong return on investment.

We now operate in Care 2.0 world in which contact centers are now required to satisfy the expectations of increasingly savvy, highly mobile customers, who feel great service is an entitlement. And the impact of their satisfaction takes on new meaning when you consider the power consumers now have to influence public opinion. Communication among consumers has reached an all-time high. The proliferation of social software—peer networks, blogs, chat, public rating systems and more—combined with growing media interest in consumer issues has made it easier than ever before for consumers to share their care experiences with an increasingly large audience and influence public opinion. Organizations can no longer hide from delivering a bad experience.

This Care 2.0 environment necessitates a change in the way organizations approach customer care and respond to customers. In this world, organizations must:

--Be more knowledgeable about customers and their interactions
--Ensure ease of access to information, to services and to people
--Make the most out of every interaction

Automation in call centers is a financial imperative for most companies, but it’s no longer sufficient for companies to automate customer service without considering the effects on callers. Choosing the right type of automation is essential to creating a positive customer experience. Touchtone systems fall short, but voice automation, with systems such as call steering, can deliver better performance results (higher automation rates, reduced call length, and few hang-ups/opt-outs) and a more rewarding interaction experience for callers.

Jeff Foley is the solutions marketing manager for the Care Business unit at Nuance Communications, where he creates and manages marketing and messaging for the company’s portfolio of telephony products. As an MIT engineer-turned-marketer, Jeff focuses on bridging the gaps between sales, marketing and development. He began his career as an engineer at Dragon Systems and held marketing roles at edocs, an Internet billing company, and Atari, a video game publisher.