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NEW YORK — In Bill Meisel’s vision of the future, the main interface modality with your phone will be your voice.
Meisel, president of TMA Associates, laid out a fairly positive assessment of speech technology’s future here at this year’s SpeechTEK conference. The largely negative view the masses have of speech technology, he said, is dissipating -- and will continue to dissipate -- and he added that visual and textual modes will be “alternative and supplementary” to speech technologies.
Meisel acknowledged that, in its early mainstream use, speech technology encountered bad implementations and bad design — particularly in the interactive voice response (IVR) space — that hurt the public's perception of its abilities. Thanks to a number of recent high-profile speech applications, however -- such as Goog411 (Google’s free directory assistance) and the the Ford Motor Co.'s multivendor collaboration on its Ford Sync -- speech-powered products have started to prove useful and likeable to a wide swath of consumers, Meisel said.
“Impressions are changed by more-friendly applications,” Meisel said. “People are now seeing speech recognition in more places, like the car, and they’re getting more familiar [with it].”
Ford, Meisel noted, sells twice as many cars with Sync than without. Apple, he added, has recently made speech capabilities one of the main sells in promotional materials for its iPod music device.
With regard to his claim that phones will soon be operated primarily via voice, Meisel explained that the devices are becoming integral parts of everyday life. As if to underscore the point, he then waved his own phone above his head, telling the crowd that he considers the device his personal assistant. As his and others' expectations for the devices continue to rise, graphic interfaces — which, Meisel said, are largely mobile analogs of Web-interfaces — are going to get visually cluttered with multiple functionalities. In short, he warned, they will become unsustainable.
“Voice is going to be the dominant interface," Meisel insisted, "instead of navigating 28 icons." Moreover, he added, users aren’t looking for a personal computer in their phones. “They have enough trouble with that,” he said.
Meisel was joined in the session by Philip Hunter, principal strategist and designer for Design - Outloud, a specialist in designing for user experiences, interactions, and interfaces. Hunter told the audience of his own vision for the future of speech technology and the end user, a view that focuses on the contact center and IVRs. Hunter, however, left technological issues aside and fixed his sights squarely on user experience.
“I think we’ve done a lot [on the technology side] over the past few years and maybe enough for the time being," Hunter said. "I want to focus on how were using it." The technological advances, he argued, are mostly invisible to end-users. “Speech is the same as [dual-tone multifrequency],” he said, referring to the dial tone you hear when you pick up the phone. “The interaction style is the same, but our customers don’t really care when it comes to interaction -- interaction modalities are the same as others.”
What makes a difference in customer experience, Hunter said, is how useful and easy a system is, not the underlying technology. Too often, he noted, enterprises focus on technological solutions to problems that might be handled more effectively with better design. He cited as an example the problem of callers becoming frustrated and angry: Why, he asked, should an enterprise spend a significant amount of money to install emotion-detection capabilities to route callers to an agent when they get angry? Why not simply identify the problem generating the hostility, and deal with it head on?
Hunter also pointed to a statistic that Paul Greenberg, president of The 56 Group and chair of SpeechTEK's sister conference CRM Evolution 2009, noted in his opening keynote address this week: Only about a third of contact center callers expect to be satisfied.
“That’s a horrifying statistic,” Hunter said.
He and Meisel both argued that contact centers that don’t work hard to give customers a quality experience are missing out on major opportunities to build customer relationships. These callers may be disaffected, Hunter said, but they're customers first: They’ve already bought from the enterprise, and, if they were handled properly, they might be enticed to buy again -- or to buy more.
Meisel, for his part, went so far as suggesting that maybe a portion of an enterprise’s advertising budget and creative staff ought to be reallocated to the contact center. These centers, he noted, receive billions of voluntary calls that remain largely unexploited.
CRM Evolution '09 concluded earlier this week in New York. Full coverage can be found here.
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