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Customer Inter@ction Solutions
April 2007 - Volume 25 / Number 11
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Speech Self-Service Encroaches On Carbon-Based Life Forms

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Editorial Director, Customer [email protected] Solutions


When I first heard someone mention that someday, self-service would replace humans in the call center, I think I snorted coffee out my nose. It was almost a decade ago, and my skepticism on the topic was high. After all…what was there for self-service at the time? Touch-tone IVR? It had (and still has) its time and place, but let's face it: when it came to problems, the old-fashioned IVR often created more of them than it solved. Speech recognition, while in existence at that time, usually required you to speak very loudly and very slowly, in simple sentences, as if you were revisiting your old first-grade reading textbook: "Spot and Jane sit in the sun! No! In the sun! S-U-N, dammit!" In order to achieve something like 70 percent accuracy, you needed to be in an utterly quiet environment, and you needed to have the patience of a saint on mild tranquilizers.

In March, Lloyds TSB, the fifth largest bank in the UK, announced the closure of its contact center in Mumbai, India, originally contracted to handle overflow calls from UK-based call centers. The reason? Lloyds TSB stated that the widespread use and success of its automated speech-enabled phone self-service system has eliminated the need for additional agent capacity in Mumbai.

Self-service. Computers. Replacing live, breathing customer service agents with a pulse (unless you are a cable company, in which case, that latter point is debatable.)

This time, I didn't snort coffee out my nose. Which is good, because it hurts and stains rayon terribly.

According to research group Datamonitor, a contact center in an offshore location such as India can save Western businesses approximately 25 to 35 percent per transaction. A call serviced by speech automation costs approximately 15 to 25 percent of the cost of a call handled by an agent in India. Datamonitor believes that the improvement in speech self-service can be entirely laid at the feet of key technology and commercial achievements in speech recognition along with increased processing power and lower hardware costs.

"As we roll out the tape over the next several years, cost pressures and globalization will undoubtedly continue to create strong tailwinds for offshoring," said Daniel Hong, Lead Analyst of Voice Business Research at Datamonitor. "However, speech self-service will also proliferate and, in many instances, compete with offshoring as companies scramble to assemble the optimal blend of automation and agents for customer care. It is important to note that increased reliance on speech will not supplant the need for offshore contact centers for a lot of companies, rather the technology will serve as an adjunct to offshore operations as these companies look to improve customer interaction in a cost-effective manner."

In other words, if all your agents are located in India, the Caribbean or the Philippines, don't get too excited about this. You're not going to be able to replace your entire workforce with a battalion of HAL-9000 computers (the non-psychotic variety, anyway) that always say "please" and "thank you," never ask for raises and always have chirpy, positive attitudes — at least not in the near future. If you want that, start figuring out a way to assemble your very own workforce of Stepford Agents.

Peter Ryan, Senior Analyst of Contact Center Outsourcing Research at Datamonitor, confirms that speech self-service should be complementary to the human workforce when he states, "One only needs to look at the recent Dell (News - Alert) expansion into the Philippines as a sign that customer care served from foreign locations is a model that works. Companies across Western nations are clearly seeing the benefits to housing some elements of customer care offshore. These include lower costs, accessing agents with excellent language skills and commercial sophistication. It is also apparent that many firms that feel offshoring is a one-stop shop are re-thinking their strategy, and are incorporating nearshore /onshore capabilities in addition to self-service."

"In addition" is the key phrase. Supplement…complement…understand where self-service can make a great deal of difference and where a trained human touch is still an absolute necessity.

One of the reasons why I reacted in disbelief years before to the news about self-service replacing humans was not only that the technology was not yet up to scratch (it wasn't), but that I just didn't see that most organizations would be able to successfully develop the correct roadmap for determining when it's good to use self-service and when it's not. Let's face it, even though the technology is now ready for its close-up, the scenario of calls coming in from irate platinum customers and getting routed to self-service solutions while monotone "What's my checking account balance?" calls are getting routed to the call center's best agents is not hard to imagine, given the fact that effective contact routing still seems to be beyond the abilities of many organizations, particularly large business-to-consumer ones.

Be patient. It's too early to sit back and imagine, with starry-eyed zeal, a near future of silicon agent team meetings that place in 42 nanoseconds, a workforce that needs to be installed rather than trained or agents that can rapidly increase their work output merely by performing a quick hard drive defrag. Besides…as a call center manager or COO, don't imagine for a minute that by the time the enterprise can assemble an entirely automated contact center workforce, you can't be replaced by a blade server wearing a tie. CIS
By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Editorial Director,
Customer [email protected] Solutions

The author may be contacted at [email protected].

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