Sears pioneers voice activated answering for retail

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Giant merchandiser Sears is pioneering voice recognition answering technology in the world of retail stores, allowing callers to be connected with the department of their choice at the mention of a word.

Similar to directory assistance voice recognition systems, Sears' system recognizes words such as "shoes" or "menswear" and directs customers to those departments within local stores.

"For the past few years we have been looking at customer service as our main driver to increase sales and profits for the company," said Terry McGinnis, national manager, store office policy and procedure, for the Hoffman Estates, IL, company. "One thing we had not looked at in many, many years is the way calls came in to local Sears stores."

Previously, departmental routing was handled in local stores by some 3,000 live operators, who have since been displaced to fill other vacancies throughout the chain. Sears initially looked to create a central call-taking unit with live operators but then began to explore voice activated systems.

"A live operator can handle only one call at a time and that's it," said McGinnis. "A few years ago some of the stores had implemented a menu-driven, automated attendant. Then we were looking at a central call project so that when calls came through they would be routed to a central call taking unit. We were working on that project and looking at equipment, then we started talking about speech recognition."

To determine usage patterns and requests from inbound calls, operators logged consumer requests for three consecutive days last year. They found that 79 percent of all calls asked to be transferred to a department.

Nuance Communications provided the voice recognition answering technology, which bounces calls made to a local store to a network and back to the store's respective department. The set-up retains the same local store phone number used previously. Unrecognized requests are routed to either of Sears' two call centers, in Colorado or Kentucky. The two locations, which handle other teleservices functions, such as credit inquiries and payment notifications, employ 200 live operators, who handle calls and transfers to the local store through an on-line directory. The system can handle four calls simultaneously.

The service was in 130 stores by late last year. The rollout will be completed for 780 of the company's 833 worldwide stores later this month. The balance of stores will continue to be handled through central call-taking units at the Colorado and Kentucky locations until additional voice recognition systems are developed, said Jan Drummond, a company spokeswoman.

Although the current system "has shown a great deal of tolerance for accents and for changes in inflection," Drummond said, some of the company's stores are located in Hispanic populated markets and those stores require a bilingual application.

"People are used to hearing voices in a variety of ways," Drummond said. "This provides personal service and gets the same results very efficiently. The real goal is to get customers to the cosmetics department or the kids department. Our ability to retain customers is something we have not been able to measure but is certainly going to result in tangible customer relationships and sales as well."

The system is saving costs as well, though figures were not disclosed.

"It is a small cost savings but it really increases our customer satisfaction, and we are always looking for that," McGinnis said.

Voice recognition technology is gaining wider application. IBM is slated to launch a voice-activated customer service product, ViaVoice Telephony Run Time. And Nuance Communications has added voice-automated service to Toronto Dominion's Green Line Investors, allowing voice inputs to the discount brokerage firm for stock quotes.

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