Use Care in Implementing Speech Technologies, Vendors Say

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ORLANDO, FL -- Call center operators that are adopting speech-recognition technology as the next generation of their touch-tone interactive voice response systems should be careful how they use and implement such technologies, according to some of the presenters at the Call Center Demo and Conference 2000 here last week.

A recent study by Gartner Group, Stamford, CT, predicted that 30 percent of all new automated phone lines will have speech-recognition capabilities by 2003.

Many of the same problems that plague traditional touch-tone IVR systems could continue to hamper the use of speech-recognition systems, despite recent innovations in technology. According to some suppliers of the technology who spoke at a session called "IVR as Customer Service: It Ain't Just Voice," the key is to set up the systems so the callers are the ones driving the interactions.

"Part of the problem [with simplistic speech-recognition systems] is that callers feel stupid when they hang up," said Phillip Hunter, senior manager of the advanced speech development team at InterVoice-Brite, Dallas. "What you want to do is use technologies that make customers feel like they've accomplished something. You want the end result to be that the customer got what they wanted, they got it fast and it made them feel good."

Just as some touch-tone IVR prompts seem to drive customers crazy by giving them an endless string of unwanted choices, some speech prompts also can cause problems for callers.

Part of the problem, said Rex Stringham, president of Enterprise Integration Group, is that customers have started to get used to speaking one-word commands in speech-recognition systems and they get stymied when presented with the option to use natural language.

By the same token, some companies using speech systems are wasting time with long-winded explanations of how to use their systems.

"Don't take up a bunch of your callers' time telling your customers you want them to use natural language, then give them questions that require one-word answers," Stringham said.

Hunter agreed that the wording of the prompt was critical to the success of the speech-enabled IVR system.

"The context needs to be very well defined," he said. "If you prompt with 'What do you want to do?' most customers will say 'I don't know.'"

In addition, Stringham said giving consumers long lists to choose from, either by touch-tone or speech, is always a mistake.

Other potential problems with speech recognition, he pointed out, are the higher costs than touch-tone IVR and the potential interference of background noise, especially in places like airports or train stations.

It costs about twice as much to operate a speech-recognition IVR than it does to use touch tone, Stringham said; although, others said the price can be lowered to only about 50 percent more than touch tone. The price generally varies according to the size of the vocabulary used and recognized by the systems.

Stringham pointed out, however, that the benefits of switching live-operator calls to speech-recognition IVR could pay off. If a call center handling 10,000 calls per day with live agents shifts 5 percent of those calls to speech-recognition IVR, it will save $250,000 per year. He said call centers are seeing savings of $2 per call or more from the use of speech-enabled IVR.

Some call centers are seeing peripheral benefits from using speech recognition, according to Marty Dixon, director of business development at Periphonics, a Bohemia, NY-based division of Nortel Networks Co. He said financial brokerage Charles Schwab found that the number of received calls for stock quotes increased when callers did not have to speak to a live agent. He said callers might not have wanted to bother an agent several times a day to ask stock prices but felt better about doing it with a machine.

Citing a USA Today survey in which Americans said touch-tone IVR was the second most-annoying thing in their lives after junk mail, Dixon said, "We believe speech recognition will be the thing that gets us out of that scenario."

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