To many consumers, automatic voice prompts may rank among the great scourges of customer service, right up there with endless loops of telephonic waiting room music and people who repeatedly drop calls while trying to transfer them.
Oftentimes, these poor interactive voice-response (IVR) applications are the result of poorly designed applications, but limited technology plays a powerful negative role as well. On Wednesday, Microsoft will announce a number of improvements to the voice platform, developed by its Tellme subsidiary, that aim to make it easier for companies to develop more responsive, interactive customer-service applications.
It's taken nearly two years after being acquired by Microsoft, but Tellme finally has begun incorporating a number of Microsoft technologies into its software and vice versa.
The new version of the Tellme platform includes features that make it easier for the software to process complex spoken syntax. Microsoft claims the improvements will help companies save as much as "millions of dollars" because it will help them develop apps that can resolve more issues without forcing or leading customers to transfer to a human customer-service representative. "The cost of agents is measured in dollars, while the cost of self-service is measured in pennies," Brooks Crichlow, Tellme's director of marketing, said in an interview.
Microsoft isn't the first speech-recognition vendor to be able to handle complex inquiries, nor is it the largest in terms of market presence. Market leader Nuance already has such technology in place, but Microsoft's upgrades put it in a position to be much more competitive, Forrester VP Elizabeth Herrell said in an interview.
One of the new features, called Online Adaptation, quickly adapts Tellme's voice-recognition features to the speaker's dialect or gender by applying an "acoustical model" after hearing the speaker talk, aided by pronunciation dictionaries. The new version also cancels out background noise, and the recognition engine adjusts for mobile and landline calls.
Another set of features applies the level of confidence the Tellme software has in its assessment of what a speaker says to several separate parts of a sentence, rather than only to a full utterance, and also assesses syntax in a sentence to help the application discern a speaker's intention. That also means Tellme can break responses into pieces, asking speakers to repeat only parts of a sentence as necessary and letting Tellme more intelligently ask for more information.
"The purpose of an IVR today is beyond call steering, it's to help facilitate transaction completion," said Forrester's Herrell. "When you have a speech engine that can handle more complex inquiries, it allows the caller to progress in their questions and get some intelligent response back."
For example, someone calling into an airline may want to reserve a ticket. In the past, Tellme's platform required application developers and callers to break departure date, time, city, and arrival city as well as return flights into a series of questions and answers. With a properly designed app using the new version, a caller could give their entire flight request at once, and Tellme could ask for additional information -- for example if the caller left out the return flight information or if Tellme didn't understand a certain part of the caller's request. The new Tellme app could also understand numerous different ways of asking for a flight.
Tellme also is announcing a partnership with Global Crossing to allow contact centers to make voice-over-IP calls, which could significantly cut long-distance costs. Tellme already has partnerships with AT&T and Verizon. Other new features include text-to-speech to read back addresses and names, and support for a number of open standards.
Many of these new features come from collaboration between Tellme and Microsoft's speech technology group, which has been working on things like speech recognition for more than a decade. Tellme also has helped get speech-activated mobile search into Windows Mobile, and now powers Microsoft's customer-support hotline.
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