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Speak, and ye shall find

Users of voice recognition solutions talk about the benefits, savings and down sides of this type of technology.

Humanizing call centers with voice recognition technology

"For many companies, this is the right time to invest in speech recognition technology. Some companies should have done it years ago. ...Everything comes down to the issues, challenges and strategic plans of the organization, and how new technologies will affect it." - Judith Markowitz, J. Markowitz, Consultants

Today's customers are quickly losing patience for cumbersome touch-tone systems, and turning to the convenience of interacting more naturally - with their voices. As a result, a number of companies are making great progress in the field of speech recognition technology. Speech (or voice) recognition technology is the ability of a computer or program to recognize dialogue and commands, based on a designated, programmed vocabulary. This technology is particularly handy in call centers, allowing customers to speak, often in natural language, to an automated system, which then routes the call to the appropriate function or call center agent.

Office Depot, Prudential, Home Depot and Federal Express are among the companies that use speech recognition to ease the burden on their call centers and shorten wait times for customers. So is Thrifty Car Rental, which uses Boston, Mass.-based SpeechWorks' voice recognition technology to manage its automated rate quote system.

Tulsa, Okla.-based Thrifty Car Rental handles more than 4 million customer calls per year. Approximately 35-40% of these calls are from users interested in obtaining general rate information. Bob DuPont, vice president of reservations, was looking for a way to free up his customer support staff to spend less time responding to these type of calls and more time responding to callers making actual reservations. It became increasingly clear that DuPont was looking for an automated rate quote system.

Since implementing a speech recognition solution to handle their automated rate quote system in February, Thrifty Car Rental has seen a shift of 60,000 customer calls to the new system. "We are very pleased with the new system and so are our users. In a sampling of 1,000 of our customers, 90% said the new system either met or exceeded their expectations," said DuPont.

Benefits and cost savings

The cost savings are another impressive benefit for speech recognition technology systems. A recent study by Frost & Sullivan Inc., in Mountain View, Calif.-commissioned by SpeechWorks-found that simple customer questions can be answered with speech recognition for around 35 cents each vs. up to $1.50 each using human operators.

In fact, speech recognition technology vendor NetByTel claims customers see an 87% average cost reduction from what they pay to outsource or maintain an internal call center, said Paul Robinson, president and co-founder of NetByTel.

Catalog retailer Mark Group, NetByTel's Boca Raton, Fla. neighbor, has been using NetByTel Order Status to field some 200 to 250 calls per day. According to Scott Bryant, Mark Group's vice president of operations, the speech recognition solution has afforded major recognizable benefits after only two months, including fewer hang-ups on the system and shorter wait times -- all without having to hire additional staff.

The down side

One of the limitations of the technology is that callers are restricted in what they say in directed dialogues, said Chuck Cosby, founder of Leverance, a company which enhances speech recognition technology with natural language capabilities. For example, callers to United Airlines' portal that need to find flight information are asked to state the name of the departure city. If a caller says, "I'm departing from Boston" instead of, simply, "Boston," the system will not recognize the information, said Cosby.

Users should also closely examine the quality of the phone line or input device, cautions Dr. Judith Markowitz, founder and president of Chicago-based J. Markowitz, Consultants. "Noise from the background, a channel or a bad microphone can have a negative effect on how the technology works. Call centers should always be equipped with a human backup - a person to decipher what was said or what the customer was inquiring about."

Markowitz strongly suggests companies always perform usability testing upon implementing speech recognition technology. Development and implementation of this type of technology should not be quick. It is not a plug and play application. "Speech is particularly sensitive to bad design and development."


The Kelsey Group, of Princeton, N.J. predicts the global market for speech recognition products and services for enterprises is expected to grow to $14 billion by 2005, with $11 billion of that to be devoted to customer relationship management initiatives.

When it comes time to purchase the speech recognition technology, be cautious, as in-house software and hardware may become outdated quickly, suggests NetByTel's Robinson. "It's an important consideration, whether to buy or outsource," he said.

Average costs for this type of technology can range from $30,000, for a basic voice-activated auto attendant, to $300,000, for a full package including both the licensing and service fees, according to Steve Chambers, VP of marketing for SpeechWorks. The price is determined by the application and length of conversation you select as well as the cost for building and designing the user interface, or caller experience.

For Click & Mortar businesses, speech recognition:

  • Provides self-service alternatives for improved customer support
  • Increases the opportunity for additional revenue by freeing up CSR's to take more complex ordering calls
  • Improves the options and quality of customer support thereby increasing customer retention and durability
  • Reduces costs by completely automating simple, repetitive calls
  • Cuts seconds off of complex calls needing a live operator


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