Speech technology looks finally to be moving out of the lab and into business applications to stay.
That was the message from speech technology providers and users at the SpeechTek Exposition & Conference in New York this month.
Although deployment of speech technologies in enterprises is still relatively small, IT research company Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn., predicts enterprise speech application spending will rise to $213.4 million in 2008 from $119.6 million last year.
Deployment practices are one of the main factors driving enterprise adoption of speech technologies, said Gartner analyst Bern Elliot. "Technology is the foundation, but best practices are the enabler," said Elliot.
For the most part, speech technologies have made inroads in enterprise call centers, and several users at the show demonstrated how they cut costs by transferring calls from live agents to automated voice-enabled systems.
For instance, the American Automobile Association for Minnesota and Iowa automated about 15 to 20 percent of calls coming into its 800-number by using a voice-enabled system, said Joe Alessi, vice president of marketing and IT in the companys Burnsville, Minn., offices. Alessi estimated AAA is saving about $2 on every call that uses the speech technology.
More important, Alessi said hes been able to retain more skilled workers in call centers. "Instead of taking mundane calls, the kinds of things that could bore people in a call center to death, they can now deal with more escalated issues," he said. "So they are more fulfilled and are helping people that need to be helped instead of dealing with things like address changes or membership renewals. And we are able to provide a better level of service."
Another user, Continental Airlines Inc., has deployed a bilingual speech-enabled system from ScanSoft Inc. to help customers access flight status information. The airline uses a separate system to handle employee travel reservations. Its been able to move about 50 percent of flight-status inquiries from live agents to the automated system—which has resulted in cost savings, said Omar Alvi, manager of speech and wireless programs for Continental, of Houston.
"It allows us to automate more routine calls and to allow customer service agents to focus on sales and handle more complex customer issues," said Alvi. The ability to handle both English and Spanish calls is also an important feature for the airline, he said.
"The technology, costs, user interface and usability of speech systems have improved quite a bit," said Alvi. "The quality is now at a level that is satisfactory for customer service, based on surveys weve taken."
Other users, such as the New York City Department of Education, are employing speech to meet a need other than cost savings. The school system—which is the largest in the country, with more than 1 million students in 1,400 schools and 80,000 teachers—is testing a speech-enabled application to provide parents without computers access to such information as attendance, grades and bus schedules. The system has been testing the application for a little under a year in 50 pilot schools with 50 parents in each school.
"Were rolling it out in small bites to see what kind of response we get, and, so far, the response has been good—the parents have been enthusiastic. They see the potential for the system as much as the immediate benefit," said Richard Langford, deputy CIO for the education department. "We think it gets parents more involved with whats going on with the kids, and our suspicion is that it gets parents to speak more with kids."
The system is based on Microsoft Corp.s Speech Server, and Microsoft, along with a partner, Intervoice Inc., is providing development support.
Langford said that more than 160 languages are spoken by parents of children in the school system but that, so far, language difficulties have not been an issue.
"Its going to take a while before confidence levels in speech engines are up high enough to be confident to understand what a person is saying. As the designers of this software get better and fine-tune the language, a lot of avenues will open up," said Langford.
"Speech technology is really just in its infancy," Langford said. "Dealing with customers and people over the phone is just the tip of the iceberg."