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Voice Is Changing, Not Disappearing

Voice Is Changing, Not Disappearing 7/28/2014
By Donna Fluss
Speech Technology


Communications pundits continue to proclaim the death of voice. I disagree. People still like to speak to and listen to other people, even if they also use other channels when it’s more convenient. The voice world is changing, but is not going away as a service channel, despite the rise of social media and a significant increase in chat and SMS activity. Companies still need and want new, innovative solutions and capabilities to improve voice-related activities.

Improving the Customer Journey

Companies have been trying to capture a holistic view of their customers’ behaviors, needs, wants, and preferences for years. In fact, this was a primary goal of the customer relationship management movement in the 1990s. Customer experience management, which followed the CRM era, was dedicated to improving customer perception, which, of course, assumed that a company had the means to measure it. Most did not.

With recent innovations and improvements in analytics, mobile computing, the Web, and even areas as mundane as storage and computing, companies now have better and faster visibility into customer activities in many channels. While most companies cannot yet capture and evaluate all customer activities and behaviors in every channel, and fewer can bring this data together in a single repository that allows them to analyze it and accurately predict the future, the market is moving in the right direction. Privacy issues aside, there is a tremendous amount of information available about consumers that can be leveraged by companies willing to make the investment.

Consumers are going to continue to call and interact with people in stores and branches, even as they adopt alternative channels. People will continue to use touch-tone and speech-enabled IVRs to quickly obtain information and transact business. In the future, they are going to be able to give voice commands to all types of devices, and all of this information needs to be collected and analyzed as part of each customer’s journey. Innovative companies will add new servicing channels while continuing to support the established ones.

For the first time, companies have much of the information they need to evaluate the customer journey. This data is coming from voice-related channels (sales, agents, IVRs, stores, branches, etc.), as well as the Web, chat, SMS, mobile, and social media. Once companies figure out what to collect and how to consolidate and analyze this data on a timely basis, they will be able to improve the customer experience. And in the process, they will see that voice remains a powerful, useful, and effective channel, even if it is no longer the only game in town.

Speech Analytics

Speech analytics, also known as audio mining, entered the commercial marketplace in 2004, and its adoption has grown rapidly as companies figure out the best ways to use it to enhance the customer experience and reduce operating costs. This new software converts unstructured conversations into structured output; it structures conversations using a variety of techniques and turns the results into metadata. Companies can then analyze and use the output files in many ways, including identifying the root cause of calls (why people are calling) and company and department trends, determining callers’ emotional states, figuring out which agents are adhering to their script, and improving quality assurance. Speech analytics can be applied to both recorded and live calls.

Speech analytics improves the service dynamic by enabling companies to mine phone conversations so that they can use this data for the benefit of their company and customers. As companies learn to apply speech analytics as an enterprise change agent, it will become a transformational tool.

Visual IVR

IVRs have been the workhorses of customer service departments and contact centers since the 1980s. In many companies, they typically handle anywhere from 65 percent to 95 percent of incoming calls, and are mission-critical applications. (They are also increasingly being used to interact on an outbound basis with customers or constituents.)

Although IVRs have proven themselves to be a highly effective way of communicating and doing business with customers, they are still loved by almost no one, including frequent users of these applications. There are a number of legitimate complaints about IVRs, many of which are the result of companies failing to make adequate or appropriate investments in these powerful applications. But even with wonderfully designed and managed IVRs, there are criticisms of the amount of time it takes them to communicate with callers. (Of course, they usually allow users to fast-forward if they know the scripts, but most callers don’t.) This is where visual IVR comes in.

Visual IVR is a relatively new concept that allows companies to create menu-driven interfaces for their IVRs from Web sites and smartphones. They translate the IVR script into a visual display of options, and present them to users via the Web or a mobile device so that customers can touch or click an option. As most people can read a sentence much more quickly than they can listen to it spoken, this affords them the power and capabilities of IVR in significantly less time. The technologies are designed to allow companies to build the visual interfaces without rewriting their IVR applications. Visual IVR allows companies to realize even greater benefits from traditional voice-related applications.

Voice Biometrics

Voice biometrics, also known as voice recognition, is a practical science whose time has finally come. This technology, which uses the characteristics of each speaker’s voice to identify him, has been commercially available since the late 1990s, but until recently was too cumbersome and difficult to use to be a practical business application. While it still requires a significant amount of time for each user to establish a valid voice print for verification purposes, more people are now willing to put forth the effort because of growing security concerns. Companies are also finding that there are certain types of uses where voice biometrics can significantly reduce the time agents have to spend verifying the customers willing to set up a voice print. This reduces enterprise costs and improves the customer experience.

The primary use for voice biometrics today is to fully automate the process of verifying callers so that they do not need to answer specific security questions with information that could pose a significant risk of identity theft, such as their address, last few credit card transactions, or even a personal ID number. Because each person’s voice has unique characteristics that are extremely difficult for a thief to replicate, voice biometrics is considered the most accurate and least intrusive way of verifying callers. As companies get better at rolling out voice biometrics programs, the adoption rate of this technology will improve. Therefore, doing business by phone will become one of the most secure ways to interact with a company, as well as increasingly simple and quick.

Final Thoughts

Improving the customer journey, speech analytics, visual IVR, and voice biometrics all take advantage of voice-related activities to enhance the overall customer experience and improve enterprise performance. Voice may not be the sexiest channel, but it remains an important one that should be used to a company’s advantage. Companies should invest in alternative channels in order to interact with each customer in his or her channel of choice, but the voice channel is going to remain an important one for years to come, and deserves ongoing innovation.