Giving Customers More Say

AirTran taps speech recognition for flight info.

March, they say, comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Last month, Rocky Wiggins, vice president and CIO at AirTran Airways, found out just how true that old aphorism is when, on the first weekend of the month, a fierce snow and hail storm struck, grounding flights in the Northeast and causing calls from customers checking flight information to almost triple overnight. During three days of blinding snow, the 4,100-employee subsidiary of AirTran Holdings Inc., in Orlando, Fla., which normally gets 3,000 customer calls a day, received 25,000.

Wiggins and AirTran, however, were able to weather the storm of customer calls by relying on a new automated speech recognition flight information call center it had installed just a few months earlier.

The system, which allows callers to quickly find out the status of a flight after using their voice to give details such as flight number, flight origin or destination, was designed by technology vendor and integrator SpeechWorks International Inc., of Boston, to withstand just such a spike in call volumes.

But, Wiggins said, even when the weathers just fine, the speech recognition system delivers benefits, increasing customer satisfaction and allowing human service agents to spend their time handling more complex issues.

As the quality of speech recognition has steadily improved and as major vendors—including Microsoft Corp. in its .Net initiative—have increasingly embraced it, more enterprises struggling to cope with high customer call volumes have taken to the technology. The global market for speech recognition products and services for enterprises is expected to grow to $14 billion by 2005, with $11 billion of that to be devoted to customer relationship management initiatives, according to The Kelsey Group Inc., of Princeton, N.J.

In the transportation industry alone, Continental Airlines and United Airlines Inc. have, like AirTran, used SpeechWorks products to automate flight information processes.

In other industries, FedEx Corp. and E-Trade Group Inc. are using the technology to raise customer satisfaction and reduce call center costs. A recent study by Frost & Sullivan Inc., in Mountain View, Calif.—commissioned by SpeechWorks—found that simple customer questions can be answered with speech recognition for around 35 cents each vs. up to $1.50 each using human operators.

But, experts warn, speech recognition isnt for all types of customer interactions. The technology is best suited for call centers where a finite number of straightforward questions are typically asked, said Jeff Snyder, an analyst with Gartner Dataquest, in San Jose, Calif. Contrary to popular assumptions, speech recognition call centers are not intended to replace live agents, Snyder said, but rather to augment them.

Moreover, speech recognition isnt cheap. System design, development and deployment can run several million dollars, according to officials at SpeechWorks, which provided technology and integration services to AirTran.

Officials at AirTran, like those at many companies dealing with high call volumes, decided to deploy a call center system to respond to basic customer questions quickly and efficiently. That way, AirTrans live agents can spend more time handling the more complex calls such as booking flights or rerouting or rescheduling cancelled flights.

But a few key issues led AirTran to choose a system using speech recognition technology instead of the more commonly used Interactive Voice Response, a system whereby callers respond to listed menu options and questions by entering answers using the phones keypad.

One of those issues was call efficiency, Wiggins said. Company officials felt customers could get questions answered much more quickly by saying what they wanted instead of dialing it, he said.

Before deploying a speech recognition call center, AirTran had live agents handle all calls. But that resulted in a lot of on-hold time for callers seeking simple answers to simple questions. Now, AirTrans speech recognition system handles 95 percent of its flight information calls, Wiggins said. And, the call-log data suggests customers are happy with the new system. Only 5 percent of the calls handled by the speech recognition system result in callers hanging up before the call is completed or asking to be passed on to a live agent.

Another reason AirTran went with speech recognition over IVR was safety, said Wiggins. "We figured that a lot of our fliers are going to be calling for information from the road. You shouldnt have to pull your phone away from your head when youre driving to type into the keypad."

Wiggins admitted he was initially concerned about the ability of speech recognition technology to respond accurately to callers responses. What, for example, if the system couldnt understand commonly used slang phrases, he wondered.

In tests, however, Wiggins and his team found that the system could be trained to understand colloquial terms. For example, the system, which runs on a PC platform and interfaces with AirTrans flight scheduling and other systems, understands "yeah" and "uh huh" as "yes," he said. And when the system doesnt understand a caller, it will prompt him or her for another response or ask the caller to rephrase what he or she said.

But organizations deploying speech recognition should not simply rely on the improved technology, experts say. Systems should be designed to be as simple as possible for customers to use, Snyder said. "Often, automated call centers require a caller to listen to a long list of menu options just to get one question answered," he said. "But a speech recognition system can allow callers to state right away what information it is theyre seeking."

In addition, Snyder said, users should always be given the option to exit the system at any time (usually by pressing zero) and to have their call passed on to a live agent.

Now that speech recognition has proved a hit with customers, Wiggins said he would like to see AirTran doing more with the technology, mainly to help its employees.

Perhaps AirTrans flight crews could one day be able to bid on the flights they want to work with a simple speech recognition call system, rather than the complex faxing process used now, he said. Or, he suggested, employees could have a speech recognition system that would allow them to select or change human resources benefit options.

Indeed, when it comes to speech recognition, AirTrans CIO sees only clear skies ahead.