Problem: Companies need to take a more realistic approach to speech technologies.
Recently, a potential Amtrak customer called the company’s automated phone system to get fare information. Here’s how the conversation went:
“Hi!” exclaimed a recorded voice infused with welcoming, patient positivity. “I’m Julie, Amtrak’s automated agent. Let’s get started. What city are you departing from?”
“New York,” the customer said.
“Hmm. I think you said Newark,” Julie said. “Is this correct?”
“No,” the customer said.
“Okay,” Julie said. “Let’s try again. What city are you departing from?”
“Manhattan,” the customer replied.
“I think you said Meriden, Connecticut,” Julie said. “Is this correct?”
Eventually Julie gave up and put the customer through to an actual human being.
While it’s true that speech recognition systems have improved steadily over the past two decades, it has been a painfully slow progression. Often their use in call center applications seems specifically designed to annoy rather than to serve. Touch-tone systems are maddening enough, but trying to converse with artificially unintelligent digital drones can send a customer right over the edge.
Some experts say the reason why speech recognition has earned its bad reputation is that consumers have unfair expectations of what the software can do.
“You say ‘speech recognition,’ and consumers automatically expect HAL from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,'” said Art Schoeller of Yankee Group Research Inc. And companies that use the technology tend to over-promise and under-deliver on that expectation; they create realistic personas to make customers feel as if they are speaking to a live agent.
So why would any company want to use this floundering technology? The answer is simple: to cut costs. Automated customer service (often referred to as “customer self-service”), whether speech-enabled or touch-tone, costs a fraction of the price of staffing call centers with live agents. And voice systems are designed to handle more complex transactions, such as travel reservations. According to Forrester Research Inc., customer service calls handled by automated systems cost an average of 20 cents per minute, compared with $7 per minute for live help.
But the Web has proven an even more effective tool for those complex kinds of customer interactions, and the speech recognition market has suffered as a result.
In 2000, the speech recognition market was $140 million and full of promise, but by 2004 it had slumped to just $117 million, according to Gartner Inc. Today, speech recognition seems to have settled into its relatively small call center niche—used for complex service calls from customers who don’t have access to a PC.
Outside of the call center, speech recognition has limited traction. Companies are slowly automating processes that currently require the aid of actual humans, such as transcribing documents and processing forms. Consumers are also increasingly using speech technologies in their cars and on mobile phones. But it will be years—probably even decades—before the technology will meet our Star Trek-like expectations.
For now, companies considering speech deployments need to adopt realistic goals about what the technology can deliver, and focus on delivering an experience that customers can embrace.