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Speech self-service speaks the language of savings

For companies like DirectTV and Orbitz, maturing speech self-service is improving customer satisfaction while decreasing call volume to the call center.

Speech self-service is still a minority toolset in the touch tone-dominated call center world, but its impact on the customer experience continues to improve for such companies as DirecTV and Orbitz.

Alan Hubbard, senior vice president of Aberdeen Group's customer service and support group, reveals that while only 20% of best-in-class companies have speech self-service, 86% of those firms have seen their customer retention and satisfaction rates climb. They have also witnessed a 10% drop in abandoned calls.

Hubbard attributes the low adoption rate to speech self-service being a relatively new technology and to initially poor customer experiences.

"Worries about speech self-service are starting to fade as companies and customers become used to the technology as it gradually improves," Hubbard said.

DirecTV speaks naturally

DirecTV first employed speech self-service in 2003 for customers ordering pay-per-view service. Callers would say a key word or words to prompt the directed-dialog system. In 2006 the firm improved its functionality with more advanced natural language, allowing for longer phrases.

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Mike Uhlenkamp, senior call center technology specialist at DirecTV, reports a 40% drop in customer complaints and a 5% improvement in top box scores in customer surveys about the IVR as a result. The volume of transactions handled by self-service, both the IVR and speech, rose by 70% while call volumes decreased by 16%.

"Natural language addresses the limits of IVR by supporting a much wider array of products and services," Uhlenkamp said. "For example, a customer can say 'I want to order Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' and we can come back with pricing and simply ask for the customer's preferred method of payment."

One argument against speech tools is that the system will not understand everything a caller says. Uhlenkamp admits that has been a challenge, but new technology has come a long way. For instance, DirecTV has added more disambiguation dialogues -- additional questions to clarify customers' requests-- to address that problem.

"Disambiguation improves the customer experience by heightening the perception that the system 'understands' what [customers] really need," Uhlenkamp said. "DirectTV plans to roll out similar speech recognition tools to handle programming, technical support, and payment calls later this year.

Similarly, Orbitz launched speech self-service across its call center platform in June 2002, less than a year after the travel site debuted, to manage high call volumes and costs. The company works with Tellme to handle IVR and directed-dialog applications.

Jim Kerr, senior director of global customer experience solutions at Orbitz, attributes the success to the dialog construction, which mirrors talking to a person. The online travel-buying experience was new to many people when Orbitz started, which meant that we needed a high-quality experience on the self-service side," Kerr said. "The system is so user friendly that even today we have customers who when they complete their interactions thank the machines."

Orbitz targeted a 12% self-service completion rate within one year. Now the system is currently at 40%. In addition, in post-call surveys, customers rank the self-service tools an average of 5.3 on a 6-point scale.

The positive results achieved with speech self-service have come about through continuous improvements to the customer experience. For example, Orbitz initially removed reprompting of phone numbers from the speech dialog. While the practice forced completion rates to jump as high as 70%, complaints increased and satisfaction rankings dipped.

"We would get customer complaints about the system being too difficult to get done what they needed to do," says Kerr. "These experiences didn't tie with our branding, so we relaxed the application."

Where is speech going?

Experts predict better functionality and usability as speech self-service tools mature and new opportunities arise in the call center. Bruce Pollock, vice president of products and services at West Interactive, which works with DirecTV, is starting to see new applications that allow the subject to change multiple times in a single conversation, such as from billing inquiries to buying services.

"In many of today's speech applications, the grammars are only designed to handle utterances specifically related to one issue, so that when callers start talking about an unrelated subject they are often misrecognized and are then transferred to agents," Pollock said. "These emerging applications permit a more natural dialogue that will result in a higher quality customer experience."

Ian Jacobs, senior analyst with Frost & Sullivan, also predicts more personalization in the next generation of speech self-service tools. "This is real one-to-one interaction because the speech recognition system recognizes who you are, and what has been and could be important to you to help meet your needs," he said.

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