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Blue Cross makes healthy call with speech-enabled IVR

The Northeastern Pennsylvania unit has managed to deflect routine customer calls to automated responses and free agents up for more complicated questions. The technology is also improving agent performance and call analysis.

When older customers grew frustrated with Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania's automated contact center technology, the insurer provided a cure. It replaced a touch-tone response system with a speech-enabled interactive voice response (IVR) application from Aspect Software at the end of 2003.

"Many of our customers still own rotary phones," said Robin Higgins, manager of voice services for Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania, whose contact center serves both medical providers and insured members. Even many of those with touchtone phones didn't use the automated system. "A common perception among all of our members was that they would get to an agent quicker if they did not interact with the touchtone prompting at all." By doing so, customers burdened call center representatives with calls that could have otherwise been solved through the touch-tone response system, which meant less time for agents to address more callers who truly needed the agents' help.

Today, the speech-enabled IVR system handles about 20% of all calls into the insurer's contact center. That shift has delivered efficiency gains and greatly expanded the customer base's access to service. Customers are more satisfied, Higgins notes, because they can quickly find information via the speech-enabled IVR system, and because call center representatives have more time to address customers' complex questions and issues.

"We can do the same job with fewer agents while providing more individual, consultative service to our customers," said Shawn Brogan, a communications analyst with Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania. "We put this in place because our customers deserve better access. Our IVR is available 24/7, which is a huge factor as we compete in a market where customers demand faster and better access to information."

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Improving customers' access to information that results in cost savings to the company is just one benefit of today's speech-enabled IVR systems. Some organizations are using these systems to gather and analyze customer information, giving them insight they may not have otherwise gleaned. Still others use speech-enabled IVRs to evaluate and adjust customer service agent performance to help improve the service experience.

"One large airline used the technology to find out what customers were saying on a consistent basis and, more important, why," says Oscar Alban, a principal with Witness Systems. "To their surprise, the word 'London' was at the top of the list. This concerned the executives because London was one of their prime international routes." But it was far from the airline's only route, so the executives listened to the recorded calls in which the word "London" appeared. They discovered that callers were using the city's name to point out that a competing airline offered lower fares to London. The executives quickly moved to cut their own fares to London and the London-related complaints on the IVR system promptly stopped. "Something that concerns customer service executives is that they may not know what they don't know," Alban adds. Analyzing customer queries from a speech-enabled IVR can help alleviate that concern.

Improving employee performance is another relatively new use for data gleaned from speech-enabled IVRs. "We have several customers who have deployed a post-call survey to evaluate agent performance with the aim of providing better service," says Aspect Software manager Elizabeth Magill.

That sort of IVR application is growing common in the utilities sector, where many regulatory jurisdictions require electric and gas companies to maintain certain levels of customer satisfaction or even minimums for average speed-to-answer in the contact center. Last year Capgemini's energy practice introduced a speech-enabled IVR application that surveys customers after their calls to service agents. The results are routed back to the service representatives and their coaches, who identify areas in which the agents can improve their service and interactions.

Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania is also in the process of using its IVR application to enhance employee performance by implementing speech-enabled IVR post-call surveys. The information that those surveys produce will be used in coaching activities and to support new, skills-based routing capabilities that are also in the works.

Despite new and alluring examples of speech-enabled IVR's promise, the market for the technology, according to a recent Jupiter Research study, is "still very much maturing." The study indicates that only 12% of customer service functions in the United States had deployed speech-enabled IVR capabilities. That figure should climb steadily in coming years thanks to success stories like Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania and Capgemini.

Reprinted with permission from 1to1 Media. (c) 2006 Carlson Marketing Worldwide.

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