Speech Technologies: MORE More Than Just Talk

Speech technologies are poised to finally make the big jump toward common usage by contact centers, according to a recent Forrester Research report. The report, “Speech Technologies: Ready For Prime Time,” by John P. Dalton with Harley Manning and Hwasun Lee, contends that while even basic speech recognition apps are having a hard time gaining a foothold today, faster processor speed, open standards, and network-based deployments will boost adoption by contact centers.

Continued from last week

Last week, we noted that a Forrester survey of 600 contact center managers at $1 billion-plus companies showed that the most basic speech recognition applications have made some inroads, but that advanced speech apps have few takers. Still, Forrester thinks the success of basic apps has fueled a second wave of innovation, and it’s a good time to bet on speech.

Forrester’s report notes that the benefits of speech technologies are real. The phone remains the channel of choice for many consumer interactions, and well-designed voice user interfaces (VUIs) can reduce call time by as much as 30% and — compared to traditional IVR systems — cut opt-out rates in half. UPS’ speech-enabled tracking interface (built by Nuance) has reduced call times from 90 seconds to one minute. Continental Airlines’ flight information app (built by SpeechWorks) has decreased the number of calls that get escalated to live support by 50%. Forrester sees a payoff of lower operational costs and customers who get what they want faster without having to wade through touchtone hell. And, considering that automated voice contacts can cost as little as $.50 each versus as much as $8 for live support, a contact center could see ROI in 18 months, says the report.

Once deployment, design, and pricing barriers fall, firms will have both the motive and opportunity to pilot a new wave of self-service speech initiatives. The likely outcomes, says Forrester, are that evolving Web-enabled network-based solutions will let small-to-midsize firms finally find their voice, and as firms grow comfortable with the cost savings created by automated speech apps, they’ll begin to explore proactive upsell and cross-sell opportunities designed to generate revenues.

Still, Forrester warns against some hazards inherent to speech applications. When brainstorming about interfaces that might benefit from speech, it’s important to remember that speech is a social act. One firm planned to let consumers browse and order DVDs and videos without having to “press 1.” It didn’t take long for the company to learn, however, that there are some titles people would rather not speak aloud in the office or on the train ride home. And more than a handful of interviewees warned of the dangers of deploying voices that irritate consumers. And they routinely pointed to one example above all others to illustrate their point: Sprint’s “Claire.” As one designer put it: “Her cloying peppiness, no matter what your mood or need, can be grating. But there’s an important lesson here: When you build an app that you think represents your brand, and then that brand clashes with reality, you’ve got big trouble.”

Forrester Research, Inc., based in Cambridge, MA, may be reached at 617-613-6000, or found on the Web at http://www.forrester.com.