'Automated Annie' Reduces Call Volume

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An automated order-status system at cataloger The Mark Group has received mixed reviews after two months on the job. Known as Annie, the system is designed to reduce the number of non-sales calls handled by teleservices agents.

"We're still tweaking the system," said Scott Bryant, vice president of operations at The Mark Group, Boca Raton, FL. "Overall, customers have responded well, and we're running an average of between 200 and 250 calls a day into Annie."

Bryant would not comment on what percentage of callers transfer to an operator, but he did say that the transfer rate is slightly higher than the company wants.

"It turns out that even though we tell our customers to have their order numbers ready, there is a little confusion as to what the order number is, versus an item number, versus the source code, versus the tracking number," he said. "We're working to fine-tune that application and to do secondary look-up to improve the stick rate."

Twenty percent to 25 percent of calls for The Mark Group's three brands -- Boston Proper, Charles Keath and Mark, Fore & Strike -- are from customers checking their order status. The company anticipates that the new system could cut those calls by 50 percent. Bryant said it costs The Mark Group $2 per order-status call handled by a representative compared with about $1 for calls handled by Annie.

The Mark Group promoted the service in 5 million copies of its three catalog titles that it mailed in May.

The system does not have the computerized sound of other automated systems, Bryant said. It is designed to show personality -- humming, for example, if a customer needs more time to find an order number and promising not to take it personally if a customer transfers to a customer service representative.

"We don't want to create a trade-off and make customers choose between personal service and technology," Bryant said. "It's something they have to actively choose and they know when they chose it, it's going to be an automated response."

He expects that more customers will take advantage of the system during the holiday shopping season, when call centers become inundated with phone traffic.

The Mark Group is considering plans to implement other voice-recognition systems such as other inquiry-transaction applications and, ultimately, order-taking applications.

"Ultimately our customers will make the final decision on future applications," Bryant said. "We are continually trying to enhance our customer service, and speech-recognition technology is simply another way of providing effortless shopping for our customers."

NetByTel, a voice commerce solution provider based in Boca Raton, is the system's developer.


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