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.
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.”
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.
Webster said the biggest challenge in making the transition to voice hasnt been writing code but grasping the technology.
“Our biggest challenge … has been understanding the technology, understanding what is a prompt, what is a grammar and how does speech recognition work,” he said.
Two Woodforest application designers spent several months learning about voice technology and took classes in voice user-interface design offered by Enterprise Integration Group Inc., a San Ramon, Calif., company specializing in IVR applications.
The banks development team, comprising one full-time and one part-time person, needed only two weeks to write the first draft of the application. The team used the bank staff to stress-test the system, which is slated to be deployed soon.
The application was designed as a directed, rather than an open, speech system. As a directed system, the application prompts the user with a question and expects a short answer in return. For example, when the application asks a customer, “Would you like your balance or transaction information,” it expects a response such as “balance” or “transaction.”
This approach allowed the Woodforest developers to build a relatively small grammar for the application. Webster said the company plans to expand the application over time to encompass a broader grammar, which will allow for presenting users with open-ended questions such as, “What would you like to do?”
Webster said a significant benefit to moving from the DTMF system to Microsofts Speech Server is improved reporting. With the DTMF system, only a small amount of call data can be tracked. Speech Server, in contrast, collects a large amount of information about a wide variety of data points, including call duration, features being used and recognition-related problems.
There are some features Webster would like to see added to Speech Server, including multilanguage support and the ability to override Speech Servers default text-to-speech pronunciations for particular phrases.
From a deployment perspective, Woodforest has a single telephony server that will manage incoming calls through an Intel Corp. Dialogic 48-port telephony card. A Web server runs the banks speech application, and two servers in a load balancing cluster provide speech services. Webster plans to scale the system as needed by adding more ports to the telephony server and more speech servers to the cluster.
Technical Analyst Michael Caton can be reached at [email protected].