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Getting vocal about voice automation

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29th Nov 2006
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Voice automation has received a bad press in recent years, not least because it has been inherently inefficient at satisfying customer needs, says Joseph Brown, RightNow Technologies vice president of voice solutions.

While companies have long seen the value in the technology the trade off has been frustrated customers. This no longer needs to be the case. When correctly implemented as part of a customer experience strategy, voice automation has a valuable role to play in serving customers.

Voice automation has historically been a great way to cut call centre costs – but less than ideal for achieving customer satisfaction. That’s because voice automation systems have generally been difficult to navigate and have offered customers very limited options. So, while they may be very convenient for vendors, they have been a real turn-off for customers and potential customers.

This is a major problem. In today’s highly competitive markets, no company can afford to alienate its customers by providing a less-than-satisfying experience at any time. In fact, the consistent delivery of a superb experience at every touch-point is essential to business success in a world where customers can change vendors with a few clicks of the mouse.

The challenge is in trying to take advantage of the cost savings associated with automated voice while at the same time ensuring customer delight. Below is a 3 step guide that will help to ensure that voice automation doesn’t create more problems for businesses than it solves.

1. Voice as a channel vs. voice as a system

One of the problems that most companies face in their deployment of automated voice is that they see it as a separate operational system – rather than simply another channel for communicating with customers. When automated voice is deployed as a separate system, it becomes an isolated "silo" of interaction that has to somehow be self-sufficient (which it can never be!).

Typically, this occurs because companies purchase their voice applications from a voice hardware vendor or niche voice developer whose specialty is voice technology – not customer service, customer relationship management (CRM) or the delivery of well designed customer experiences. These companies may be good at delivering technical features and functions, but they have no expertise in customer experience best practices or in the appropriate use of voice automation in the context of a larger customer experience strategy. So they are of little help in making voice automation much more than another “gadget” in the IT portfolio.

A better approach is to deploy voice automation as a one of several communication channels available to the customer – along with the web, email, attended voice, chat (similar to instant messenger), fax and face-to-face interactions in a local store of office. Customers, after all, don’t think; "today, I am going to use Company A’s automated voice system," they think; "I need to contact Company A about my order" and then proceed to do so via whichever channel happens to be most convenient for them at the moment.

That's why it's critical to deploy automated voice as an integrated channel of an overall CRM environment. That's also why wherever possible, it makes sense to acquire voice automation solutions from vendors who specialize in CRM and/or customer experience delivery– rather than from an infrastructure company. PC makers don’t develop desktop applications. And no one buys ERP systems from router manufacturers. So it's probably not a good idea to buy voice applications from a PBX vendor. Better to acquire tools for communicating with customers from developers whose core competency is communicating with customers – rather than the electronic processing of speech into digital signals.

2. Fully enriching the voice experience

Another key concept for satisfying customers with automated voice is to focus on fully enriching their experience with it. Too many companies rationalize the limited functionality they provide via automated voice by thinking that even the most minimal capability is better than none. This is actually not the case. In fact, if your customers want to do ten things via automated voice and you only enable them to do two, you are actually ensuring that 80 percent of them have a negative experience – especially if you don’t make it easy enough for them to hop to another channel to achieve their objective.

Effective voice automation therefore requires a good understanding of all of the customer's needs, as well as the ability to fulfil those needs. That’s why, in addition to providing functionality such as speech-based navigation and access to various account and transaction data, an effective voice automation deployment should provide insight into what customers are calling about and where they are getting frustrated. This insight allows customer relationship managers to modify automation applications over time in response to customers’ needs – rather than relying entirely on the initial assumptions of a development team, which may or may not turn out to be accurate.

This is another reason why automated voice should not be deployed as simply another channel in a larger customer care environment. If it is an isolated system, the information customers want and need will have to be fed into it in some unique (and therefore costly and complicated) manner. If, on the other hand, it is one of many channels, then the same information that is available to customers via web self-service and from live call centre operators can readily be made available voice self-service.

3. Let the customer drive

There are several other principles that help transform automated voice from an annoyance to a competitive advantage. It's preferable, for example, that customer service representatives are able to see a customer’s activity on an automated system in their service record. That way, if they do take a call from that customer, they can see what the customer did and ask appropriate questions. Nothing makes a customer feel better than being asked things like, "I see that you used our automated system last night. Did you find what you wanted? Did you have any problems using it?" It’s little touches like this that make the customers feel like they are in control – instead of feeling like the automated system exists because the company deploying it doesn’t want to be bothered with them.

So, if you’re contemplating deployment of automated voice – or if you’ve recognized the shortcomings of the technology you have in place today – think about how it fits into your overall customer relationship management strategy and how you can discover what your customers are really looking for. If you put your customers in charge of your automated voice channel, you can reap great results. If you put engineers in charge, however, chances are that you will continue to aggravate and disappoint the customers on whom your business depends.

The 3 building blocks of success

The key to mastering a successful voice solution is just like with any other customer-facing communication channel; you have to work from the outside in. The customer’s experience of communicating with your company and the channels your company provides for this should all be considered from the customer perspective. The correct voice integration, customer insight coupled with feedback and a willingness to improve and build on the initial implementation are the strategic building blocks that will ensure that customers are no longer frustrated by out-of-date voice systems that devalue your brand and leave customers fuming.

By Joseph Brown, vice president of voice solutions at RightNow Technologies

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