“I didn’t understand that – please say it again.” All too often this is the negative experience consumers have with interactive voice recognition (IVR) and speech recognition software. The technology seems very fragile, easy to confuse and often plain irritating.

At least, that has been the perception up to now. Speech recognition software was hampered by the Star Trek illusion of natural conversational style interactions with computers – sadly, that level of artificial intelligence is still a long way off. There have also been some technical challenges that have hampered growth in the technology’s take up, such as slowness and a lack of applications.

Finding your voice

That all may be changing as speech recognition gets more robust and is being used increasingly by organisations as a way to interact with the customer.

A recent survey of use of speech for instance identified applications in travel and transport, public sector, utilities and retail banking – ranging from checking arrival times, location of council services, meter readings or finding the nearest ATM. While many companies see online as the best first call for customer self-service support there does seem to be a growing niche for speech as an adjunct to call centre functionality. So is it time to revise not just the consumer perception of speech but also that of the sceptical CIO?

"Pull Quote: "

Shona Fraser, director of revenue and reservations, Travelodge

CIO UK spoke to four organisations regarding their successful implementations of a speech channel: utility Bournemouth & West Hampshire Water, budget hotel chain Travelodge, travel firm First Choice and Bss, an outsourced contact centre for the public sector.

Mike Sylvester is IT project manager at Bournemouth Water, which has implemented a voice recognition payments system for its 420,000 users. He told CIO UK how while the company had been able to accept payment cards for a few years, “due to the potential impact on our call centre we had not publicised this service”. Speech recognition, he says, has been the main way to solve the problem as the automated system avoids extra call traffic to the organisation’s call centre advisors. “We see this as key to improving customer service, making the service available 24-hour and in the long term increase speed of payment and lower bad debt issues through offering this option.”

Sylvester sees scope for functionality like customer account balance checks, direct debit sign up and general call routing as other future uses of speech.

"The concept of using a virtual agent to efficiently and effectively handle the routine transactional calls makes good business sense"

Julia Sockett, head of call centres, First Choice

Travelodge describes itself as the UK’s number one budget hotel chain with nearly 300 hotels nationwide. It too has turned to this form of customer interaction: “Speech self service was introduced for a number of reasons,” says Shona Fraser, its director of revenue and reservations.

“The principal one was to extend our voice reservations service to cover a 24-hour period, therefore allowing us to reach a wider market without increasing the cost of a room. The huge growth in our estate over the past three years has resulted in a growth in reservations. But rather than increase costs and staffing within our existing call centres, using the web as a platform the speech self-service technology lets us capture business in a low cost way,” she says. “This fits well with our brand strategy to champion low cost rates and enable more people to stay in hotels, more of the time.”

Speech self-service is now a round the clock service which started as a simple booking service but which has since been significantly enhanced. A suite of voice-based applications allow the customer to quickly identify the nearest Travelodge hotels in a given location. The system can then advise callers regarding availability, offer them the best rate for a room and make reservations. The system can also capture the full contact and address details for the booking. In August a new service was added which enables Travelodge customers find directions to hotels and answers frequently asked questions, among other features such as amending previous bookings.

Changing attitudes to use of speech

Consumers are starting to accept IVR and speech systems, according to a recent survey of attitudes to using speech, ranging from paying gas and council tax bills to transferring bank funds.

The survey was conducted by a supplier of speech technology called Fluency and involved both face to face interviews and trial use of systems.

Almost three quarters (74 per cent) of the sample surveyed had already used speech technology, 58 per cent had used a speech system recently and 88 per cent claimed they had found them easy to use, reportedly across all age groups.

A majority – 69 per cent – said they thought speech recognition has improved as a technology; and 58 per cent of participants would prefer using speech as an alternative to the internet for purchasing items.
Of the participants who had used speech recently the most common transaction was finding a balance (59 per cent) followed by booking a ticket (43 per cent) and checking train or flight schedules (41 per cent). Over a third of the sample has already used it to pay a bill or fine. That is not to say consumers do not want to talk to real agents, but a surprisingly high 37 per cent would prefer speaking to a virtual one, mainly down to avoiding long wait times on the phone.

Use of technology like speech aligns in the wider sense with Travelodge’s core strategy. “Our aim is always to add value to our services without increasing cost to the customer; speech self-service helps to fulfil this goal,” says Fraser.

“Our philosophy is to make hotels more accessible to more people and this can only be achieved with the development of IT. Using the Web as our focus platform for reservations has reduced the cost of making a reservation to the extent that we now sell rooms at a lower price than when we set up 21 years ago. This enables us to attract more customers and realise our goal to expand the number of Travelodge rooms in the UK.”

Future roles for speech at this company include developing more intuitive IVR to help reduce the time customers spend on a call by easing their flow through the reservations system.

Another leisure firm that says speech has proven a winner is travel specialist First Choice. “The concept of using a virtual agent to efficiently and effectively handle the routine transactional calls makes good business sense,” says Julia Sockett, its head of call centres. Callers are given the choice of three options; to check a balance, make a payment or get an update on their ticket status, enquiries the company had identified as the three most common reasons for calling. The speech recognition system now successfully handles 600 of these calls each day.

Meanwhile a firm in quite a different business, Bss, a provider of outsourced contact centre and fulfilment services to charities and public sector organisations such as Learndirect, Consumer Direct and the BBC, has also found speech a useful tool in its portfolio.

“We have added speech as an added value or extension to the current services we offer,” says Michael O’Toole, sales and marketing director at the organisation. “In our area of expertise – public sector contact centres – we see live advisor response handling as the mainstay of most services. However, an automated voice recognition system adds an extra dimension to that. The automated functionality can be perfect in certain cases such as out-of-hours service, call routing and enabling quick and simple payment processing.”

For O’Toole use of speech reflects the central importance of technology to his company’s business.
“IT is fundamental today in almost all our services. We believe in enabling the widest reach and accessibility to the services we run which provide vital information and advice to citizens in order to empower them through the provision of information. Intelligent use of a range of channels ensures that helplines offer the most effective and efficient media to access information and advice services.”

The verdict seems clear – speech has found a place in today’s customer self-service market.