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How to Modernize Your Contact Center in the Age of Siri

The last five years have brought many changes in caller behavior into the modern call center, thanks to speech-recognition-based tools such as Apple's Siri as well as readily available self-service through web channels. And while consumer queries have become more sophisticated, the call center has been slow to recognize or modernize to accommodate this trend. How does your call center support consumers in the age of Siri?

What Did Siri Bring to the Table?

Apple's virtual personal assistant Siri has been an integral part of iOS since 2011. While billed as having a natural language interface, Siri's primary strength is in its ability to follow commands related to smartphone application functionalities. Sending an email, setting an alarm, calling your spouse and getting directions are all squarely within Siri's wheelhouse. The beauty of Siri lies within the walled garden of its limitations: users know what their smartphone applications can do, so most voice commands are easily recognized.

Modern Caller Expectations for the Voice Channel

So how do consumer tools like Siri affect the modern contact center? It's all about the promise of Star Trek. The dream of Star Trek was the elegance of saying "Computer, shields up!" and having the command carried out instantly. Did anyone else notice that the Star Trek computer never once said, "I'm sorry; I didn't understand you. Could you please repeat that?"

And that dream of an elegantly effective voice channel is still alive today: in a Forrester survey, 79% of respondents reported they still prefer the phone to other customer service channels. Ten percent actually reported preferring using the automated speech recognition system. That's 89% that choose the phone over social media, web chat, email and other channels. And the same study found that 84% of customer service interactions still take place over the phone, through live agent interaction or automated self-service. (The distant second category was email at a paltry 10%.)

The State of the Voice Channel Today

The real value of modern tools such as Siri lies not in their ability to access increasingly large databases but rather in the refinement and promotion of the voice interface itself. Despite all beliefs to the contrary, customers prefer the voice channel. They just want it to work.

However, the field of speech recognition is shrinking rather than expanding. Few players remain: IBM, Google Voice, Nuance and Microsoft are the only companies still working on speech recognition and natural language processing at all.

Effects on Your Call Center Inquiries

Add to that phenomenon a shift in the nature of inquiries to the call center due to the plethora of additional channels. For many years, common wisdom in the contact center followed the Pareto principle: 80% of callers are contacting the enterprise with the same, easily answered, basic questions. Only 20% of callers had really tricky, complex issues that fall outside the frequently asked question (FAQ) paradigm and require human assistance, states the model.

But thanks to the expanded channels now available, that is no longer the case. Callers typically attempt to solve their issues online first and use the call center only when the solution isn't readily available within the frequently asked questions. In a recent study by Corporate Executive Board, researchers found that a full 57% of inbound calls to a service center where from people that had tried to self-serve first. That means that those 80% of FAQs are being answered through self-service on other channels. Therefore, it's the complex questions—formerly the 20%--that now make up the bulk of call center interactions.

Action Item: How to Modernize Your Call Center

So given these three phenomena that the majority of customer inquiries are through the voice channel, that Siri has increased expectations for the voice channel, and that additional channels have shifted the content load to primarily complex questions through the channel, how do you modernize your contact center?

  • Find out what your top 100 queries are. With the shift in the 80/20 rule, don't assume you know why your callers contact you; rely on actual data. Compile a list of the top 100 queries your front line agents address daily.
  • Train for the long tail. Since the queries are becoming more complex, you'll discover that among your top 100 topics, there is significantly more variety than there was ten or even just five years ago. This means that instead of training your frontline agents to answer three basic and five additional queries, you'll need to train them to answer all 100 queries.
  • It's not either/or. It's no longer a choice of either speech recognition automation or 100% human, and never the twain shall meet. Siri has dramatically increased customer expectations in terms of speech recognition, but most call centers' automated speech recognition engines (ASRs) still lag behind. And given that natural language processing is progressing in inches rather than by leaps and bounds, go for the hybrid model: improving your current ASR by adding pinpointed human intervention.

With the continued popularity of the voice channel, the increased complexity of caller voice inquiries and the increased expectations of callers due to Siri, call centers that haven't modernized their approach to speech recognition will soon find themselves at the bottom of the customer service ratings lists. Consumers are still pursuing that dream of Star Trek: a voice channel that works with natural speech. Is your call center ready for the modern consumer?


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