Modern call center best practices in the age of Siri

Spoken | August 9, 2016

In the age of Siri, what are the new best practices for speech recongition in the modern call center?

SiriIt seems sometimes as if call centers haven’t changed in the last 20 years, doesn’t it? There have been innovations, to be sure: computer-telephony integration, integrated online chat and cloud-based architecture, to name a few. But has the experience of calling a call center changed all that much?

For most callers, contacting an enterprise for support or service still feels basically the same as it did 20 years ago. The customer experience doesn’t seem to have improved substantially over the last few decades, despite a plethora of advances in the consumer space that have heightened connectivity, community and sharing.

In particular, automated speech recognition is a phenomenon that consumers love to hate. It’s one of the tools that is rarely noticed when it functions smoothly but is always derided or even cursed when it doesn’t. And some of the innovations of the last five years have added a twist: iPhone’s voice command personal assistant Siri has gained acclaim in speech-recognition-related fields, leading to heightened customer expectations in the call center.

Siri’s capabilities

Let’s take a look at the capabilities of Siri and how they affect best practices for the modern call center. Apple’s virtual personal assistant has been an integral part of iOS since iOS 5 and was introduced as a feature of the iPhone 4S in October 14, 2011. While billed as having a natural language interface, Siri’s primary strength is in its ability to follow commands related to smartphone application functionalities. Sending an email, setting an alarm, calling your spouse and getting directions are all squarely within Siri’s wheelhouse. Most other queries will be directed to a web search for information. The beauty of Siri lies within the walled garden of its limitations: users know what their smartphone applications can do, so most voice commands are easily recognized by Siri.

The promise of Star Trek: an elegant voice channel

Scotty_star_trek_iv_hello_computer_talking_mouse_animated_if_siriSo how do these two tools affect the modern contact center? It’s all about the promise of Star Trek. The dream of Star Trek was the elegance of saying “Computer, shields up!” and having the command carried out instantly. And that dream of an elegantly effective voice channel is still alive today: in a Forrester survey, 79% of respondents reported they still prefer the phone to other customer service channels. Ten percent actually reported preferring using the automated speech recognition system. That’s 89% that choose the phone over social media, web chat, email and other channels. And the same study found that 84% of customer service interactions still take place over the phone, through live agent interaction or automated self-service. (The distant second category was email at a paltry 10%.)

While the field of customer service channels has expanded to include web, email, social media and SMS, the popularity and promise of speech-recognition-based tools such as Siri  remind us that customers are still pursuing the dream of Star Trek: a voice channel that works with natural speech. While no speech recognition tool is there, yet, the promise of natural language processing is a tool that will easily and without question be able to process complex commands. The goal is to replace the stilted and linear voice processes with an elegant solution that understands and implements complex commands, such as, “Upgrade my flight to Japan tomorrow using my miles. If it’s under $500, just do it.”

Phone support infographic from ZendekskThe rise and refinement of the voice channel

The real value of modern tools such as Siri lies not in their ability to access increasingly large databases but rather in the refinement and promotion of the voice interface itself. Despite all beliefs to the contrary, customers prefer the voice channel. They just want it to work.

However, the field of speech recognition is shrinking rather than expanding. Few players remain: IBM, Google Voice, Nuance and Microsoft are the only companies still working on speech recognition and natural language processing at all.

Another wrinkle: the 80% shift

Add to that phenomenon a shift in the nature of inquiries to the call center due to the plethora of additional channels. For many years, common wisdom in the contact center followed the Pareto principle: 80% of callers are contacting the enterprise with the same, easily-answered, basic questions. Only 20% of callers had really tricky, complex issues that fall outside the frequently asked question (FAQ) paradigm and require human assistance, states the model.

But thanks to the expanded channels now available, that is no longer the case. Callers typically attempt to solve their issues online first and use the call center only when the solution isn’t readily available within the frequently asked questions. In a recent study by Corporate Executive Board, researchers found that a full 57% of inbound calls to a service center where from people who had tried to self-serve first. That means that those 80% of FAQs are being answered through self-service on other channels. Therefore, it’s the complex questions—formerly the 20%–that now make up the bulk of call center interactions.

How to modernize your call center

So given these three phenomena that the majority of customer inquiries are through the voice channel, that Siri has increased expectations for the voice channel, and that additional channels have shifted the content load to primarily complex questions through the channel, how do you modernize your contact center?

    • Don’t assume that the old 80/20 rule still applies. Most of your callers will have attempted to self-serve online first, so it’s more likely that their issue falls outside the FAQs.
    • Find out what your top 100 queries are. Don’t assume you know why your callers contact you; rely on actual data. And don’t limit to the top 10 queries anymore—that’s so 1990. Instead, compile a list of the top 100 queries your front line agents address daily.

220px-Long_tail.svg.png The Long Tail power law

  • Train for the long tail. Since the queries are becoming more complex, you’ll discover that among your top 100 topics, there is significantly more variety than there was ten or even just five years ago. This means that instead of training your frontline agents to answer three basic and five additional queries, you’ll need to train them to answer all 100 queries.
  • It’s not either/or. It’s no longer a choice of either speech recognition automation or 100% human, and never the twain shall meet. Siri has dramatically increased customer expectations in terms of speech recognition, but most call centers’ automated speech recognition engines (ASRs) still lag behind. And given that natural language processing is progressing in inches rather than by leaps and bounds, go for the hybrid model: improving your current ASR by adding pinpointed human intervention. Tools such as Spoken’s Smart Interactive Voice Response (IVR) add pinpointed human assistance to IVR automation, which can improve automation rates by over 50%.

The last five years have brought many changes in customer behavior, thanks to speech-recognition-based tools such as Siri as well as readily available self-service through the web channel. And while customer queries have become more sophisticated, the call center is slow to adapt. It’s time to reevaluate your call center best practices and take advantage of these new trends to upgrade, adapt and modernize. Your customers will thank you!


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