Speech Recognition

Speech recognition is a lot like IVR, only callers get to speak selections rather than press corresponding numbers on their phone pads to get information.

Speech recognition gives callers without touch tone dialing the same access to information as those with touch tone service. Not only will it satisfy these callers — but think of the population of callers who need glasses to dial. These callers won’t have to juggle their glasses with the phone pad to see the numbers they are pressing.

Although over-the-phone speech recognition still has a limited vocabulary, most systems are effective enough to allow callers to speak selections such as “sales,” “flight number 123,” “transfer cash” or “order baseball cap.”

Speech recognition technology is constantly improving. Vocabularies keep growing (which means you can program the system to understand more caller commands). It seems that almost all systems are now continuous speech.

Make sure you choose one that is indeed continuous speech. Otherwise callers will be forced to pause and wait for a beep after saying every word or number. Since it’s unnatural to speak this way, callers may be more likely to hang up or ask for a rep. There’s also an increased chance of the system not understanding every word, since it’s hard to tell speech from silence.

If you already own an IVR system and want to add speech recognition capabilities, you should check with your vendor. Many of the big manufacturers like Lucent, Syntellect and InterVoice have added speech recognition to their IVR systems.

This technology has made tremendous strides in the last few years. It promises to change the way customers interact with automated systems, broadening the range of telephony interactions.

There are two distinct kinds of speech recognition, known as speaker-dependent and speaker-independent. The two diverge wildly in the kinds of things they are good at, and the kinds of systems needed to make them run.

Call center apps necessarily focus on speaker-independent recognition. Many people will call, obviously. The human brain in the form of a receptionist can recognize a huge number of variations of the same basic input — there are literally an infinite number of ways to intone the word “hello.” What you want in a call center is a system that will respond to the likely inputs — the most common words like yes, no, stop, help, operator, etc., the digits, the letters of the alphabet, and so on.

Internationally, touch tone penetration is still very low, leaving a vast installed base of potential callers who can not access IVR. It follows that these callers are then going to be expensive to process when they come into a call center because they have to be held in queue until there’s an agent ready for them — high telecom charges from the longer than average wait, coupled with the cost of agent-service (rather than self-service).

On the downside, international call centers, particularly those that serve multiple countries, can field calls in multiple languages. If you use an IVR front-end to have the caller select their language then you by definition don’t need speech rec. These are surmountable problems that have more to do with the operation of speech rec in practice than with the underlying technology.

Application Development Software

Getting a voice processing system to do exactly what you want can be frustrating. That’s why call center managers with computer expertise sometimes create their own systems using a PC, voice processing boards and application development software (also called an application development generator, or app gen.

These software packages make putting together a system easier by protecting you from the lower level computer languages (read: “harder to use”) through graphical user interfaces and object-oriented programming.

Sometimes a voice processing system will come bundled with an application development software component, to help you tweak the system to fit your exact needs.

When should you look into using application development software? If you are frequently going to modify your voice processing application — say for each campaign — then you could easily benefit from software that will let you do this yourself instead of waiting for your vendor.

But beware: this is not for the faint of heart. Even the most user-friendly app gen can be a beast. Quite frankly, creating the workflow logic of a voice processing application is very different from knowing how to schedule agents, or manipulate service levels. It’s not always going to work out the way you planned it, and it’s always going to take longer than you think.

Most voice processing systems come with preconstructed apps in their toolkits. If it’s at all possible, try to use those. App gens are wonderful tools, but the closer you get to off-the-shelf, the better off you’ll be.

Voice Mail

Now this is where you get into specialized technology. Not all voice mail systems are alike. And they have not (yet) been completely subsumed into larger boxes (though this is happening at a rapid clip).

A voice mail system answers telephone calls to individual phone numbers or phone system extensions, plays a greeting from the mail box owner and records the callers message.

At the mailbox owner’s prompting it plays back messages, forwards them to other extensions, saves them or deletes them.

Voicemail has a different role in the call center than anywhere else. While it can be used in the traditional sense for call center managers or upper management, it’s most often used to give callers an option to leave a voice mail message as opposed to waiting in queue for an agent when integrated with your ACD.

A voice mail system appropriate for the special needs of a call center should alert agents when there is a message in waiting. If the voice mail system you choose cannot do this, it’s important to create a system designating certain agents to return voice mail calls when call volume falls below a pre-determined level.

Voice mail is a critical tool for the small center that cannot afford to staff agents after-hours. A voice mail system won’t shut out any callers. It keeps your center open 24 hours a day.

Not long ago voice mail was the classic voice processing application and usually came in a standalone system that was sometimes bundled with an automated attendant. Today voice mail is usually a part of a complete voice processing system.

The latest thing in voice mail is “screen-based” voice mail that lets you call up messages of many kinds on your computer screen including your voice mail, email and fax messages. More and more vendors are jumping on the bandwagon to offer computer/telephony interfaces that put voice mail on your desktop PC. With this kind of interface you can get information not only about your voice mail messages, but also view email messages or faxes from your PC. This “unified messaging” gives you one mailbox combining voice, fax and email messages. Unified messaging gives you an easier interface than the telephone keypad. Most unified messaging runs across a LAN and integrates with your phone system. The object is to have desktop control over all of your messages, with the ability to retrieve them, read email messages or listen to voice mail and store and forward them through your computer or phone.

Some benefits:

  • Users can view messages that come in even if they are on the phone.

  • There’s no need for dedicated voice mail hardware.

  • The user can do all the configuring.

  • You can move voice, data and email from site to site across networks.

  • It eliminates the need to use the phone pad to issue commands.

Previously, telephone-oriented software had to run on systems connected to ISDN or proprietary digital phone lines to control features like hold, transfer and conferencing through TAPI.

Active Voice was one of the first companies to put voice mail on the user’s desktop. Their original TeLANphony product bridged local area networks, telephone systems, voice processing and desktop computing.

With a unified messaging app, when a call comes in, a window on your PC pops up and gives you information about the call. With the click of the mouse you can ask callers to identify themselves, hold, play a greeting, transfer the call to another extension or ask the caller to leave a message without picking up the receiver.

As call centers change (and as the Web becomes more of a customer input channel), combining different types of messaging will be more important, we will probably see the next generation of unified messaging applications focus more on serving the needs of the center.