Innovation Picks Up Static

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Recent Harris Interactive research on online consumer behavior finds people increasingly utilizing social media to share experiences—good and bad—when it comes to their interactions with companies.

Twelve percent of respondents in the study, which was commissioned by customer experience management vendor Tealeaf, shared experiences via blogs and social networking sites in 2009, twice as many as a year earlier. Furthermore, 26 percent of those surveyed posted a complaint on the company’s Web site, down from 32 percent in 2008.

The results also show consumers moving away from directly contacting organizations on product- and service-related issues, opting to talk about them instead. On the surface, this may seem to make obsolete any prior voice-of-the-customer (VoC) programs utilizing enterprise feedback management and speech analytics. In a VoC session at Forrester Research’s recent Customer Experience Forum, for example, almost every question involved the use of social media in the enterprise. Only one lonely question was about speech analytics.

“Look at 10 years of VoC programs,” says Esteban Kolsky, a CRM consultant and industry expert. “We’ve tried enterprise feedback management, surveys, speech, service—and nothing has worked. Now here’s a shiny new object called social media, and people think that we’re going to get it right. Unfortunately, they don’t realize the social media part is 10 times more complicated than other attempts, because of the move from structured to unstructured [data].”

Kolsky says the industry is rushing into social media without readying itself first. The issue, he warns, isn’t in obtaining data, but in how that data is utilized. “You can buy the latest and greatest tool, but you haven’t solved the issue because you didn’t go deeper into what the problem is,” he says. “It’s business-centric, not technology-centric.”

According to Natalie Petouhoff, a Forrester senior analyst, there are two basic reasons for speech analytics’ plight: The first, she says, is the all-too-common burden of high expectations. “Speech was supposed to be the thing that saved the day, but there was overmarketing and products were sold that just couldn’t deliver,” she says. “People used it, were disappointed, and now are wary of buying it and having it end up on the shelf again.”

The second obstacle, though, is specific to speech analytics, which produces results that are largely internal, which then require a significant effort to communicate. Social media, on the other hand, is external and immediate—two traits that are helping drive c-level demand for action with regard to social media.

Meanwhile, enterprises have seen what a bright light social media can cast on customer service. (Consider the infamous YouTube video uploaded in July 2009 by a United Airlines passenger upset about a broken guitar. At least 5 million viewings later, the airline is still on the defense.) Heightened visibility carries with it an opportunity: the chance to push for investment in technologies—such as speech analytics—to help improve customer service. 

And yet people keep talking about speech analytics. Rogers Communications, for example, a Canadian telecommunications company, recently turned to Verint Systems for the technology. Matt Ariker, Rogers’ vice president of customer-base management and customer-based calling, says that, for the most part, his audience comprises few of the early adopters embracing social media. “The challenge we have with [social technology] is that it’s not quantitative of [our] basic customers,” he says. “We deployed speech analytics to come up with an integrated view of our customer and answer the ‘who, what, where, when, why, and how often’ questions.”

Ariker says that speech analytics has helped the company reach its goal for the intiative: identifying $100 million in cost savings. “We were spending tens of millions on simply answering customer phone queries [about] where their cell phones were,” he recalls.

So does speech analytics still have a place? Ariker says yes, but suggests his success relied on a thorough look at available technologies—a case-by-case necessity. In time, he predicts, “social media will be more representative,” but for now the Verint software covers his needs. “We analyze 25 percent of our calls using speech analytics today, and we’re considering analyzing all of them. If you use speech analytics to scrutinize only 1 percent of calls, then social media will be just as good in three years.”

Petouhoff is even more adamant about the ongoing potential of speech recognition, but admits the years of overpromising and underdelivering have left the emerging analytics products with the burden of proving they deserve a fresh look. 

And the stakes have never been higher. “We’re only now getting to the point where the recognition engines are accurate,” Petouhoff says. “It has to work now—otherwise, it’ll be a long time before anyone considers it.”

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