Computerworld

Speech recognition gaining ground in call centers

Although speech recognition software has been around for several years, call centers are now applying analytical software on top of speech tools to give supervisors a way to coach and critique call center agents who handle disgruntled customers.

Cisco Systems earlier this month unveiled Cisco Unified Customer Interaction Analyzer, a managed service that relies on Behavioral Analytics (BA) software from eLoyalty.

Rather than offering a sample of calls, as some other tools do, the Cisco tool can graphically scan an entire set of calls from a certain time period or for a particular agent to detect problems -- such as whether a customer got angry repeatedly before being transferred to a supervisor or was put on hold for an unacceptably long time, according to demonstrations of the tool by Cisco executives at VoiceCon Spring 2006.

Problem areas in a call are shown as red dots on a horizontal line, and a supervisor can click on one of the red dots to get a brief description of what happened or even hear that portion of the call.

Cisco has five beta customers successfully using the Analyzer service, but none were willing to discuss it, a spokeswoman said. However, one eLoyalty customer, Uniprise, a UnitedHealth Group company, recently described how the BA tool has improved customer service.

"We're very, very pleased with the results so far," said John Reinke, senior vice president at the Uniprise Innovation Lab in Minnetonka, Minn. The BA software has so far been used by 300 agents since December, he said, and will be rolled out to all 3,000 U.S. agents this year and perhaps to another 1,500 more around the globe, he said.

Uniprise has spent "multiple millions of dollars" on the project but expects a payback within 10 months, Reinke said.

The broad goals at Uniprise are to use the software to improve employee retention and keep health care insurance customers happier, Reinke said. "We are seeing if we move the needle on customer distress, and we're assuming that, in turn, will improve the customer experience. And we are measuring agent attrition. The job of answering calls for health care is very stressful. The callers are hurt and sick, and health care is very confusing."

Since the limited rollout of the tool, the duration of calls has dropped by 20 percent, Reinke said. The number of "distress" patterns has dropped, too.

But success requires more than just new software tools. Supervisors must also coach their agents. "You can deploy it, and if you don't adopt different behaviors in the call center, you won't get any advantage," Reinke said.

The BA software is different from other tools Uniprise evaluated because it can be customized, which is important, given the hundreds of thousands of daily calls that could be reviewed, Reinke said. In many other products, supervisors must play an entire 30-minute sample call to provide a critique. And with a random call, there might not be anything to critique.

BA looks for specific words and word patterns, including well-known insults and moments of silence that could be signs of distress, Reinke said. "BA looks at word patterns and not just curse words or intonation. People can be very excited and loud and not necessarily distressed."

Reinke called the tool's accuracy "amazing" and said he has found one interesting customer speech pattern that agents might not recognize as distress. "Sometimes you'll listen and at first be hard-pressed to say this person is distressed, because they are very sweet and nice and are even taking blame for the situation," Reinke said. "In fact, they will say they're sorry [for] calling and are not confrontational. There might be a lot of 'ums' and 'errs.' " But they are viewed by the software as distressed and likely won't renew a health insurance policy when it is time to do so.

Reinke said BA might eventually be used for real-time assessments of calls so that supervisors can interrupt calls gone bad. As for rolling BA out worldwide, he wants to test how foreign accents affect results.

Chris Beck, enterprise voice architect for Career Education, said this week that he saw Cisco's Analyzer at VoiceCon and considered it the "most intellectually exciting" product at the show. Although his company only has 25 agents and would probably not consider Analyzer right now, he felt it would help companies be more effective with clients.

Future generations of BA-type tools might be able to automatically advise call agents on how to handle callers, said Matthew Goldman, an analyst at Gartner Inc. For example, a particular caller could be seen as being more persuaded by a personal testimonial than by the results of a survey, he said.

So far, tools like BA are in their early stages, according to Frost & Sullivan analyst Seema Lall and Forrester Research Inc. analyst Elizabeth Herrell. "It's still very nascent," Herrell said, noting that total sales are probably no more than US$400 million annually.

Although Goldman said no other tool brings together as many related technologies as BA, similar products are offered by Verint in New York, and Nice Systems in Israel. Some related speech analytics vendors include Utopy in San Francisco; CallMiner in Florida; SER Solutions in Virginia; and Envision, Lall said.

BA fits into a group of vendors selling speech analytics, emotion detection and other capabilities, Lall said. She predicted a doubling in the number of deployments in 2006 compared with last year.

Cisco Customer Interaction Analyzer starts at US$1,300 per user, plus a monthly hosting fee based on the amount of call data to be analyzed.