A recent spate of bank television commercials taking a swipe at call centre technologies hasn’t helped the image of call handling technology.
It's well known that people hate trawling through endless touch-tone menus to get information they need.
However, while inappropriate use of touch-tone is fair game for criticism, call centre technologies are evolving, and next-generation options like speech recognition shouldn't be caught in the crossfire.
While some companies boast that you'll always speak to a human when you call, any business embarking upon this route should be aware of the serious customer service issues it raises, such as time to answer calls - especially when extreme volumes of calls are experienced - and call centre skills and staffing levels.
Can a staffed call centre cost effectively handle the thousands of calls resulting from a phone number advertised on TV in a prime time slot? The answer is, invariably, no.
The evolution of speech recognition in the call centre environment marks the next wave in call handling technology. Voice recognition is much easier and quicker for callers – they just say what they want, without having to waste time hearing options and numbers to punch in.
The caller experience is much improved, and from the call centre’s perspective, the technology allows them to handle more calls faster, with waiting times eliminated.
A good example is how Freeview uses speech technology. They advertised their telephone number bookending EastEnders – which attracts more than 10 million viewers – and they didn’t fool themselves into thinking a call centre staffed by human agents could handle the deluge of calls.
Using speech recognition instead, thousands of calls are processed at a time, quickly and efficiently. The service has handled more than one million calls since its launch late last year and callers have never had to wait in a queue before their call is answered.
Of course, the technology is not a panacea. There are some instances where it is not appropriate to use speech recognition, or where a blended approach of speech technology and human operators works best – but companies who say they are against call automation altogether are fooling themselves. Indeed, Lloyds TSB’s Peter Littlewood remarked recently that these companies “will have to eat their words and take on automatic call handling”.
Consistent quality, rapid answer times and lower costs cannot be ignored forever – it’s inevitable that banks and other service providers with telephone customer services will have to take on automation technology such as speech recognition to handle parts or all of calls. It’s just a matter of time.
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Chris Hart is the chief technology officer of speech services company SRC.
This was first published in August 2003