Speech recognition enhances call-center capabilities.(Technology Information)

Issue: Nov, 2000

Simple voice commands make banking faster and easier for customers.

In recent years, touchtone has been the driving force in the telephony-based service industry for most financial institutions. Now, with the arrival of advanced speech technology, touch-tone is being augmented to give customers better access to an increasing number of services.

A good example of this technology trend is the work being done by First Union Corp., a Charlotte, N.C.-based banking and financial services company. It is deploying a speech-recognition system from InterVoice-Brite to enhance the user experience of its retail banking and retail investment customers. This system enhancement of its interactive voice response (IVR) platform includes a migration from IBM OS/2 to Windows NT, and will allow the bank to continue to broaden the ways its customers can access services via the telephone.

"Speech and the NT migration positions our business system for state-of-the-art access capabilities," says Nancy Staley, the First Union vice president overseeing the project. "The flexibility the system gives us on both the banking and investing sides of the house will allow us to bring on new services and adopt new technologies, such as voice verification and XML."

Because they are natural and intuitive, speech recognition applications were the obvious answers for clear and precise completion of complex finance transactions, Staley says. The speech-enabled system will allow First Union customers to obtain account information via phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by simply speaking into a phone.

A retail banking customer using me advanced speech recognition application can simply say "Checking balance," and the system will respond by reading back the customer's balance. Callers can also conduct transactions, such as "Transfer $200 from savings to checking," without having to push a button. They just speak the words.

The applications will reduce transaction times and ease navigation. Because speech makes access and manipulation of automated services easier, customers also will be less dependent on call-center agents for help, allowing the bank to use this resource for the most complex requests--like establishing new accounts or exchanging foreign currency.

For the bank's investment customers, the system gives better access to critical account-management data. Account reviews, information about past activity, and rates and yields all can be accessed by the customer's voice.

For example, a retail investment customer may request to "Review my interest and dividend activity" or "Review my brokerage transactions." The system will then respond by saying, "I'm going to read your recent brokerage transactions. When you've heard enough, say `I'm done,' or if you missed something, say `Repeat that.'"

First Union's legacy IVR system provided banking customers with touchtone and limited speech-recognition options. Touchtone interface can adequately handle balance inquiries (for example, "Press `1' for checking balance or `2' for savings balance."), but there are several instances where touchtone solutions are less practical, Staley says.

The system even extends its advanced capabilities to the customers who use rotary phones. The legacy system provided conventional "press-or-say" capabilities for some rotary phone users, which limited access to the full scope of the bank's automated services. The new system will enable access for all callers. Likewise, the new system will continue to provide conventional touchtone services for customers who prefer that approach.

"This system gives us the flexibility to provide our customers more conveniences," Staley says. With the added customer conveniences also come savings, she adds.

The cost savings for First Union's implementation of automated speech recognition is relatively straightforward. Be cause the speech interface is more interactive and helpful, callers will be more comfortable using the automated system. The end result is fewer agents will be needed to maintain the number of incoming calls. Moreover, shorter on-hold times and the use of natural language reduces the length of each call by minimizing several dialogue steps into a single spoken request. This translates into more efficient use of staff, service and equipment resources.

Implementation of the system is ongoing and will continue through summer 2001. First Union Corp. provides financial services to 15 million retail and corporate customers throughout the nation, and operates full-service banking offices in 12 East Coast states and Washington, and full-service brokerage offices in 41 states and international offices worldwide.

www.intervoice-brite.com Circle 255 for more information from InterVoice-Brite

A call-center checklist

by Chris Stanvick

While the technology of a Web-enabled call center can help make customer-service representatives more effective, a number of issues need to be resolved before seeking out this technology. This checklist poses questions that need to be answered before looking for a Web-enabled call center:

[check] Am I prepared to have service available 24 hours a day, seven days a week? The Web is always open; offering Web-based service some of the time may not be enough.

[check] Do I want to build this capability in-house, or will hiring an outsourcer be a better solution for me? Outsourcers have added Web customer service to their list of offerings.

[check] What level of service offering am I prepared to support-e-mail, chat, voice, cobrowsing? Each level has increasing complexity.

[check] Do I have phone reps that can be cross trained for Web support? When writing skills were not part of the hiring profile, a job writing e-mails and chatting may not be a good fit.

[check] How sophisticated is my customer base? Will customers have microphone-equipped PCs for online chat, or do I need to be "lower tech?"

[check] How much quality control do I need over Web communications? Phone conversations are gone once you hang up, but e-mails provide a ready audit trail showing what the company said.

[check] Are my current supervisors and managers equipped to deal with multimedia? Having "techno-comfort" is important when coaching a techno-rep.

[check] Is my telephone system ready to support data, as well as voice? Am I looking at an upgrade or a forklift?

[check] Does my technology allow me to use home-based Web agents? It is a great way to accommodate after-hours support needs.

[check] Am I ready to have my customer-service contacts increase by 15% to 40%? Many Web interactions are incremental, and do not replace a phone call.

Stanvick is a consultant at Kowal Associates in Boston, MA.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Nelson Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group