August 23, 2007 7:14 AM PDT

Call centers put accent on speech recognition

Australians would rather deal with a decent speech recognition system than an offshore call center agent, typically based in India or another part of Asia.

Speech recognition technology has matured to a stage where it can be used to increase the efficiency of a call center and provide a better customer experience, according to research from Callcentres.net.

Catriona Wallace, director of Callcentres, told ZDNet Australia that according to a recent survey carried out by her firm, of 500 Australians asked if they minded speaking with an offshore call center agent, 67 percent said they did.

"We know there is still a lot of cultural resistance in dealing with offshore contact centers. Australian customers would prefer to speak to a good Australian-accent speech recognition system than an offshore agent," Wallace told ZDNet Australia.

"Too many companies, especially those that operate online, fail to also offer customers the option of speaking to someone, resulting in frustration and potential loss of business."
--Dino Forte, director, Converso

Wallace said modern consumers are demanding speech recognition technology.

"Generation Y consumers (under 30 years old) want quick, easy access 24 hours a day from a mobile device. These are the consumers who are going to drive this technology in the future," she said.

However, speech recognition technology isn't being widely deployed by call center managers because they believe that customers would rather stay on hold and speak to a "real person" than deal with an automated system, according to Nick Buckle, chief executive of Information Technologies Australia, which published the findings of a survey Thursday.

"The general upheld myth is that everyone wants to talk to an agent," Buckle said. "People are really changing their preferences when it comes to contacting organizations."

According to the ITA survey, just more than a third of call center managers believe that all customers would rather speak to an agent than a speech recognition system. Around 29 percent say they have not used a speech recognition system solely because of the cost. However, 62 percent of call center managers agree that speech recognition systems offer a better customer experience than touch-tone self-service systems.

Buckle said using speech recognition provides companies with a better understanding of what their customers actually want--because it does not limit them to choosing from a set number of options.

"If you ask, 'why are you calling me?' you will find out why your customer is actually calling you. It is like continuous customer feedback system," Buckle told ZDNet Australia.

But many callers still hanker for a real person to speak with.

In research published Thursday, United Kingdom-based contact center firm Converso, which surveyed 2,500 people, found that 86 percent of Brits were not happy about "constantly saying yes or no to an answer phone rather than actually talking to someone."

Converso's survey did not question users on whether they would prefer speaking to a speech recognition system than using touch tones, but the company's director, Dino Forte made it clear that customers do not appreciate being made to wait.

"The results show that for the large majority, there is still no substitute for the human touch. Good service is all about offering customers the choices they want. Too many companies, especially those that operate online, fail to also offer customers the option of speaking to someone, resulting in frustration and potential loss of business," Forte said in a statement.

ITA's Buckle believes that customers worry only about the service they are receiving--not if there is a person or computer at the other end.

"The question shouldn't be, 'Is the organization allowing you to talk to an operator?' It should be, 'Is the organization...providing better value in delivering services, when and how you want them?'" he added.

Munir Kotadia of ZDNet Australia reported from Sydney.

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6 comments

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This is news?
Er, I worked on software for speech recognition for call centers about 15 years ago. How is this news?
Posted by abfalter (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It's who they talk to
It's not the fact that it's an offshore call center that's the problem. I don't care WHERE the place is. The problem is accents you can't understand and people who don't know what they're talking about.
I was upgrading the RAM in a friend's Toshiba laptop the other day, and I knew it was under the keyboard, but there was no really obvious way to get to it, so I called tech support to be sure I didn't break anything. The guy told me, in a very difficult to understand accent, to put the RAM module in the PCMCIA slot.
I hung up and figured it out myself after that.
Posted by Urza9814 (71 comments )
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Speech recognition? Give me a break!
Ever been sitting in a crowded restaurant and try to check your Visa balance with one of those things? Might as well try smoke signals.

The assumption that the voice prompts are preferred with only a pool of 500 people is ludicrous. I would assume a web vote of many thousands would show just how annoying and imperfect those systems are.

Frankly, this article is a bit like choosing between two political candidates - which is the lesser of two evils? Neither is the preferred method, in my opinion, over just typing (1) for yes, and (2) for no.
Posted by vhase (22 comments )
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unfortunate
The article seems to suggest that somehow Indian or Asian accents are inadequate or not good enough. The statement "Australian customers would prefer to speak to a good Australian-accent speech recognition system than an offshore agent" seems to implicitly confer some superiority to Australian accents and belittle those of the agents. As a matter of fact, most agents in Indian call centers tend to speak English the way it should be spoken - that is, clearly and without any contortions. Perhaps the person who made the comment should rephrase and say that Australians would prefer "Australian accents" without the accompanying adjectives. Or maybe the story was not worth reporting after all.
Posted by praveen s (3 comments )
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I don't believe this.
Praveen -

I'm not sure I agree with the statement "most agents in Indian call centers tend to speak English the way it should be spoken - that is, clearly and without any contortions."

Unless the companies I deal with all use the same minority pool of difficult-to-understand agents of Indian descent, I would argue that a majority of agents in Indian call centers tend to speak with difficult to understand broken English in a monotone that indicates a lack of understanding of the problem and simply regurgitation of scripted dialogue, easily disrupted by background noise on my end or saying something unexpected.
Posted by TV James (680 comments )
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