A Look at Speech IVR

In part one of this two-part article, we discussed the recent re-evolution and technological improvements of speech interactive voice response (IVR) technology as well as a number of the ways that speech IVR impacts branding.

As we discussed, consumers reacted to the first “talking computers” by strongly asking for improvements. Multichannel merchants relayed these concerns directly to outsourced call centers, including those that provided speech IVR functionality. Over the past few years, the improvements in the technology have been remarkable. Computers now talk in “natural language” using humor and customer-driven options. U.S.-based companies outsourcing call centers enables merchants to move to speech IVR technology without a large capital investment and without “off-shoring” U.S. jobs. The creative use of speech IVR has meanwhile been proven to reduce costs and increase revenue.

We’ve also already discussed the impact of speech IVR on brand equity, including a voice brand, market testing that voice, a computer “Persona” beyond the actual voice used, and using hold times for customer service surveys.

Building on that foundation, in this segment, we’ll cover all the ways multichannel retailers (including brick and mortar, catalog and e-commerce) are using speech IVR. We’ll also highlight a few more branding and customer service impacts of the technology, and close with a short discussion on pricing and customization to initiate a speech IVR program.

Leading multichannel merchants today see a vast new branding landscape in speech IVR. It’s much like a new radio channel, utilizing sound, personalities, and news. It’s much like the Internet, allowing customers to help themselves to information.

Speech IVR is being used for a wide variety of applications, including, according to information compiled by Microsoft, whose Speech Server product is one of the leaders in the industry:

  • Customer account information access;
  • Customer satisfaction surveys;
  • Store location finders;
  • General store information;
  • Product locators;
  • Troubleshooting guides;
  • Delivery/repair status;
  • Gift card management;
  • Payment;
  • Ordering and order status;
  • Employee or customer PIN/password reset; and,
  • Vendor accounts payable.

One national casual clothing and footwear company recently included messages about its expansion plans during hold times. (The company is also a great example of “testing” a persona as a voice brand for a touchtone response program, before its speech IVR program is fully developed. This may be an economical entry choice into speech IVR for other merchants as well.)

In a cross-selling example, Delta Air Lines announces new flight routes and other information to customers during hold times. The company also reminds travelers about purchase and return policies, important to its brand due to fluctuations as the airline industry shifts.

Recognizing the diversity of consumers, or for international customers, companies like Delta could implement speech IVR as an economical means to expand customer service to languages other than English. Foreign languages also allow companies to open and target markets previously ignored or inaccessible.

In another example of widening the brand and consumer access, speech IVR can extend a retailer’s hours to 24 hours per day, seven days per week, much like the Internet. And for peak times, such as the upcoming holiday season, speech IVR can front-end the calls toan outsourced call center, which becomes especially critical during times of heavy call traffic.

As seen in the two most recent holiday seasons, gift cards have become an increasing popular purchase. Gift cards enable customers to make brand, rather than product, purchases. These can now be quickly made using speech IVR technology, which can then also be used for the card recipient to locate stores, order catalogs to make gift card purchases, track the delivery of purchases made with cards, or handle lost card issues.

If top-notch customer service is key to a merchant’s brand, troubleshooting speech IVR applications can provide “self-help” to customers, a key buzzword in the retail industry. A better customer service experience is derived when customers are enabled to help themselves to solve problems rather than hold for an agent whose knowledge may be limited for security or other purposes. Delivery, repair, order processing, or other status applications can easily be automated in speech IVR. In addition, brand equity may be enhanced for consumers who can quickly obtain up-to-the-minute information about their purchases.

As a measure of the current state of consumers’ minds when it relates to speech IVR, consider a 2003 study by Atlanta-based Michelson and Associates. The company evaluated consumer attitudes towards speech and confirmed that consumers do indeed prefer speech interfaces to touch-tone systems and are satisfied with a speech interface as an alternative to a live customer service representative.

Through the ongoing use of such technology, along with its many improvements, multichannel merchants will continue to lead the way for such acceptance and gain from its benefits. As for getting started, the options include standard programming or a customized product. Merchants can initiate a speech IVR program with a financial investment as small as $10,000 or 25,000, when combined with outsourced services. From there, customized technology and expansive voice scripts can reach into $100,000 or more. But as mentioned previously, techniques for measuring return-on-investment have been perfected and can easily be designed into any effort.

Darrell Knight is president of Message Technologies, an Atlanta-based interactive voice solutions provider.

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