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Choosing the Right Call Center Technology
As customer interaction centers struggle to implement technology, speech recognition technology is emerging as a viable tool--but not a complete solution.
Posted Sep 26, 2001
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Company customer interaction centers have plenty of promise in terms of collecting customer information that can be used for marketing and strategic planning; handling customer concerns in an efficient, customer-friendly manner to retain current customers; and proactively selling additional products and services. Yet many centers still need to upgrade their technologies to realistically meet this promise. While virtually all customer interaction centers have automated call distributors and interactive voice response units, far fewer have computer telephony integration, fully integrated Web access, speech recognition capabilities, IP telephony or text chat features.

While all of these technologies can provide benefits, the reality is that these centers have a smattering of these capabilities already. Therefore, the best way to upgrade depends on its existing capabilities and on the types of customers it serves, according to Lori Bocklund, manager of the contact center practice for Vanguard Communications Corp., Vanguard,Va.

For example, a financial institution that already has 85 percent of its customers handling self-service through an IVR probably won't gain much by adding speech recognition. However, another bank whose customers have never warmed to IVR or have little access to touchtone phones (yes, there are still some pockets of the country with a large percentage of rotary dial phones) could find speech recognition well worth the investment because customers will use it to retrieve account balances, transfer money, etc., without the need for more expensive live agents.

Generally, these centers feature some type of Web component to handle e-mail as well as voice calls, but some have yet to successfully merge voice and data messages. (One very effective way to do that is with computer telephony integration.) "Most customer interaction centers are still talking about the CTI, but they aren't doing much yet," says independent consultant Martin A. Prunty. While e-mail can help service customers on the Web, it produces an information silo if not integrated with customer/customer interaction center voice contacts. CTI can integrate these disparate technologies, Prunty says. CTI also helps with conditional, skills-based and multi-site routing, integrated reporting, outbound dialing, and other coordinated voice and data communications.

Despite all of the discussion of the Web in customer interaction centers, speech recognition is perhaps the hottest customer interaction center technology today, according to Bocklund. Speech recognition provides a more natural user interface than a touchtone device or keyboard, the latter which may not be available when a caller is using a wireless device. By being more user-friendly, speech recognition capabilities can lessen the amount of callers who opt for live agent help. Speech recognition also lessens the chance of a caller getting stuck in "phone mail jail".

"The true value is obtained only when the applications are built to speech recognition, not to the touchtone interface," Bocklund adds. "For the broadest customer acceptance, use structured (suggesting responses) and natural language, continuous speech and speak over."

Alpa Shah, research manager, telecom for Frost & Sullivan, San Jose, Calif. agrees. Frost & Sullivan research shows that speech recognition is the technology that most customer interaction centers have first on their list in terms of technological upgrades in the next 12 months.

Speech recognition capabilities have improved greatly over the last few years, Bocklund adds. The devices can recognize tens of thousands of words and also now enable a user to "speak over" computer-generated responses, which enables a veteran user to quickly move through menu options, much like hitting the next number when knowing the next step in a touchtone interface menu. This quickens the time on the call.

As the Internet and wireless communications become more integral in society, it's more important that customer interaction centers provide the same service to wireless users, who use pagers, Palm pilots and a variety of other handheld devices, as provided to landline users. So another important consideration in customer interaction center improvement is middleware to connect disparate front and back-end systems, Bocklund says. Middleware helps leverage business applications and databases by connecting Web, IP and other newer systems with legacy systems that do the actual processing of orders, inventory, customer information, and other interactions.

However, technology should not be looked to as the answer in upgrading a customer interaction center, but only as a tool, cautions Vanguard President Don Van Doren. "Don't try to use technology to cover up fundamental weaknesses in business processes, inadequate staffing, lack of training, bad organization, etc." Van Doren urges companies to plan their moves into e-business based on business goals, not on "gee-whiz" technology.

Among those technologies are text chat and voice over IP. While text chat provides near-immediate response time, it still isn't as customer-friendly as a voice call. Agents doing text chat tend to handle as many as four customers at once, which has its pros and cons. While handling multiple "conversations" means a customer spends less time waiting for help, at least initially, this also means that the conversation can easily become disjointed as the agent handles multiple customers. Another drawback from VOIP, according to Bocklund, is that the quality is often poor and slow connections can mean long waits and very unnatural-sounding voice calls, so they contribute little to the customer interaction center for a very high price.

Web access to the customer interaction center can provide some benefits, if the application is designed so that customers will use it for self-service rather than going to a live agent. However, depending on the type of customer, an IVR can provide much of the same functionality for a lower cost. The most important customer interaction center technologies aren't always for communications with customers, however. Bocklund adds that centers that don't already have it should look closely at workforce management programs. This software enables a company to schedule agents by skill level, call volume projections and other criteria.

Additionally, customer interaction centers should look at online and offline educational packages from various vendors that enable agents to improve their skills during slow periods, Shah advises. Many of those programs enable agents to activate them during slow times, enabling the agent to be more productive and provide better quality when the calls pick up again.

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