The Good and the Bad of Self-Service Call Centers

Companies can reduce call failures and improve customer satisfaction by improving a system's vocabulary and prompts.

NEW YORK—The people who make those maddening speech-enabled call center systems met this week at the New York Marriott Marquis hotel, where the management just installed an even more maddening and irrational elevator dispatch system, to the constant annoyance of SpeechTEK 2005 attendees.

Appropriately, one of the shows first panels featured a group of industry leaders discussing what makes for a successful speech recognition implementation, and why businesses should avoid infuriating customers with badly designed speech interfaces.

Lynda Kate Smith, chief marketing officer for Nuance Communications Inc., offered food for thought by exploring the importance of the customer experience and how call centers help or harm that experience.

She pointed to surveys showing that 85 percent of business leaders agree that traditional differentiators alone are no longer a sustainable business strategy and that 71 percent believe that customer experience is the next battleground.

Starting with the idea that there are "moments of truth" in a customer transaction, she went on to suggest that "the call center is the most important part" of creating a positive user experience that creates or sustains a lasting customer relationship.

On the downside, she cited statistics showing that 76 percent of consumers have at one time or another stopped doing business with a company because they were dissatisfied with its customer service.

Some of the research Smith cited indicated that the public is generally receptive to the idea of self-service, with six of 10 respondents holding a favorable opinion of self-service systems and eight of 10 favoring further development of those systems.

However, Smith noted, what people say in the abstract world of a survey often varies from their real world views. The actual state of self-service automation systems is held in relatively low regard by most consumers, most of whom feel that businesses are installing self-service systems primarily for their own benefit, regardless of whether those systems leave the customer better off or worse.

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She suggested that the critical factors in creating a successful self-service system revolve around choosing the right transactions to automate and treating the system as a concierge rather than a gatekeeper. "People dont want a gatekeeper," she said, but they will respond well to friendly service and fast access to information.

Peter Mahoney, vice president of marketing for Scansoft Inc., presented statistics on the top reasons that calls to voice-recognition systems fail. Over 20 percent of failed calls result from callers who offer too much information.

For example, if a speech-enabled airline reservation system asks for your destination, many voice recognition systems will fail if you say "Chicago this Thursday" rather than just "Chicago."

Another 11 percent of failed calls result from callers saying words that are "out of vocabulary." His technical recommendation was to make sure that your system prompts callers about exactly what kind of information to say.

His more philosophical recommendation, though, was that businesses need to take responsibility for their automated answering systems, pointing out that while speech-enabled systems offer flexibility to businesses, "with flexibility comes responsibility to adjust to your customers."