Bank Aims to Cash In with Speech Services

Microsoft Speech Server 2004 gets the call for Woodforest National Bank's IVR system.

Woodforest National Bank is looking at speech recognition as a way to improve customer service over its existing touch-tone telephone banking system.

Based in The Woodlands, Texas, Woodforest has four 24-hour branches, and transactions completed before 8 p.m. are credited to accounts the same day, seven days a week, rather than the 3 or 4 p.m. business-day cutoff typical of most banks.

Furthermore, the bank has experienced strong growth in the past five years using a hub-and-spoke model, expanding into an area first with in-store locations and later adding a traditional branch with full banking services.

To more efficiently support these expanded offerings and to assist customers during off-hours, the bank has built and tested a new IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system that will eventually replace its touch-tone system.

Michael Webster, systems analyst with Woodforest and project manager for the development of the new IVR system, estimated that replacing the banks touch-tone-based system with a speech-based system will save Woodforest about $10,000 a month in toll charges.

Most of the savings will be realized through faster call completion and through allowing customers to access more services than they could with the old system, thus reducing callers need to talk to customer service representatives.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read about advances in speech applications.

Webster said he expects that the new telephony systems features will boost the number of calls the bank receives from 8,500 to about 10,000 per day but that the net result will be lower costs through shorter calls.

Woodforest wanted to replace its existing DTMF (dual-tone multifrequency) system because the system had reached a dead end in growth, said Webster. "It definitely wasnt meeting our needs," he said. "We couldnt grow it much in terms of capacity, and we couldnt grow it much in terms of the features we could provide customers."

Webster said the bank was also running into problems because the touch-tone application was created in an older version of Microsoft Corp.s Visual Basic that developers couldnt fully support with Microsofts latest Visual Studio .Net tools.

Because Woodforest is a Microsoft shop, Webster and his team decided to make the transition to speech recognition using Microsofts Speech Server 2004 Enterprise Edition. "We are very much a Microsoft shop in terms of development," Webster said.

"We are comfortable with Web development in the .Net platform, and that is exactly what you are developing in when you are developing in Speech Server."

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read Labs review of Speech Server.

A fundamental problem with the banks touch-tone system is a lack of flexibility, said Webster. If a customer wants to find transactions for a specific date, for example, he or she must input that date in a specific format.

The new system, in contrast, will be able to accept input for date ranges expressed in simple terms such as "last week," Webster said, because it can work to a relative reference.

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