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How Siri is Changing the "Face" of Customer Service

The increasingly smartphone-equipped world has sparked a sea change in mobile customer service innovation. Inspired by the personal connection forged between Siri and her mobile users, developers have come out with new support apps that could forever change the contact center and service landscape.

“Steve Jobs–knowingly or not–identified a great opportunity for customer service with Siri, and we are only just now at the tipping point,” says Andy Peart, chief marketing officer for Artificial Solutions, which develops Siri-like apps for customer service.

This opportunity is the company’s ability to accomplish two things at once: provide human-like interactions with customers that don’t involve additional payroll, and feed the consumer’s need for an instant response. With speech, consumers get answers without cumbersome Web navigation or annoying phone trees. Plus, this conversational tone cultivates a feeling of closeness between consumers and the brand.

Here’s the direction two innovative companies are taking to capitalize on this marketing opportunity.

SRI International Introduces Lola

Spanish banking giant BBVA had one goal when executives approached SRI International, the research and development organization that developed Siri.

“They wanted to build the Internet bank of the future,” recalls Norman Winarsky, Ph.D., vice president of SRI Ventures, the venture, license development, and commercialization arm of SRI International.

SRI decided to create a mobile application that emulated human conversation. The app, called "Lola," uses sophisticated NLU algorithms and decades worth of speech recognition data to determine the context and intent of the question, no matter how it’s asked.

For example, a banking customer could ask the application, “What was my balance yesterday?” Lola would recognize that “balance” refers to the dollar amount in the bank account and “yesterday” means to exclude transactions from today.

Lola also remembers the context of the conversation. Continuing the previous example, the customer could then ask, “What about the day before?” Lola understands that the customer is still referring to their account balance, and that “the day before” means to exclude transactions from today and yesterday.

Nuance Names Nina

Customers typically face two common annoyances when they access self-service offerings on a smartphone or tablet. One, they have to type login information and search terms on a tiny keyboard. And two, they have to dig through FAQ or community forum pages to find the answer they are looking for.

Speech is the perfect vehicle for addressing both of these issues. Even though traditional customer service applications might only require tapping through a few pages, that’s enough to stop many consumers conditioned for instant gratification.

Nuance Communications in August released new mobile customer service technology that capitalizes on this idea for voice-enabled self service. They created a Software Development Kit (SDK) called “Nina” that enables companies to add speech recognition and NLU into an existing mobile application. The result is an app that converses similar to Lola.

Nina also uses voice biometrics as a security measure. For industries such as banking where security is imperative, this feature ensures that only one voice can unlock sensitive information. So even if the password is the spoken word "password," it must be the right person's voice.

Implications for the Contact Center's Future

These technologies have clearly tapped into an unmet need in the customer service market: better, more enjoyable self service. Customers don’t have to wade through frustrating IVRs, sit on hold, or fish through massive community forums. They get instant answers to their questions from a friendly, virtual agent that already knows everything about them. These changes have important implications for contact centers.

Both Nuance and SRI International told me the next step is integrating this technology with other channels, call-in service for one. They said, for example, if a customer is talking to their virtual assistant and requests to talk to a real agent, the app will instantly connect to call center software, find the right agent, schedule a call, or call immediately. The responding contact center personnel will instantly know who the customer is based on their support app identification, skipping the annoying "what's your account number," "confirm your password," and so on. They will also have instant context into the issue based on what Lola, Nina or another mobile tells them about what the user initially asked about.