Give Them What They Want

By Dan Nordale

Due to the proliferation of connected devices — PCs, phones, smartphones, tablets, and game consoles — consumers across all demographics share a common trait: They are empowered. They now have the freedom to choose how they interact with companies, brands, and each other, readily switching between platforms and devices to suit their needs.

The impact on business is profound. A new report titled “A Biometric Day in the Life,” commissioned by Time, Inc., and conducted by Innerscope Research, has alarm bells ringing in boardrooms across the world. The report found that people who grew up with the Internet, called “digital natives,” switch their attention between media platforms (TVs, magazines, tablets, smartphones, or channels within platforms) twenty-seven times per hour, or about every other minute. This has effectively created a new appetite for multi-screen multitasking. As a result, “digital natives” increasingly demand everything — information, content, and advertising — in bite-size, digestible chunks.

At the other end of the spectrum are “digital immigrants,” a group that includes everyone born before 1982. They also want simple experiences, but for a host of different reasons. These time-crunched, slightly older consumers look to their devices to help them manage their daily lives and provide them with easy, instant access to the information they want, the way they want it.

Connect the dots: These trends have obvious consequences for business, where the bottom line depends on grabbing the attention of people whose attention is being pulled in multiple directions. But it doesn’t stop there. The emergence of these empowered yet time-constrained consumers turns up the pressure to deliver customer service that is not only more flexible but also more convenient and personal. With this in mind, consider the following developments:

Voice Evolves: Consumers across every demographic expect customer service on their terms. Each interaction must be convenient and effective. Mobile devices play a central role in our daily lives. Natural language understanding (NLU) is becoming widely expected, with apps like Siri educating consumers on the power and simplicity of voice for getting answers. The mobile app explosion and mobile voice assistants are having considerable influence on customer service strategy.

This is the view of Bill Meisel, founder of TMA Associates, an independent consultancy providing insights and supporting companies that want to incorporate speech technologies into their offerings or improve their own enterprise efficiency. Meisel suggests that the rise of personal smart assistants like Siri turns up the pressure on companies everywhere to harness natural language understanding in order to deliver similar services. As Meisel put it, “A lot of enterprises are going to realize they need a smart [mobile] personal assistant – and that people are going to expect that.”

As services like Siri demonstrate, speech recognition and natural language understanding are a powerful combination. They also add another technology to the toolbox of capabilities companies need in order to meet and exceed consumer requirements for quality customer service.

Apps Advance: There’s no single best answer when it comes to consumer preferences. Some individuals want to speak with a call center agent, while others want to perform self-service tasks using a mobile app. A significant and growing group of consumers want it both ways – they want to perform self-service tasks on an app and connect to an agent, without being placed on hold, when an issue can’t be resolved using other channels.

To validate consumer preferences across all demographics – not just the “digital natives” – Vocalabs conducted a survey of 900 smartphone owners on behalf of Nuance Communications. Mobile apps were rated as an important part of the self-service mix that defines excellent customer service. Forty-five percent of consumers surveyed said they like to use customer service apps because they are convenient. Another 40 percent like the always-on nature of mobile apps and the fact that they are “always available.”

A different Nuance study found that 67 percent of consumers prefer self-service to speaking in person for customer service inquiries, further reinforcing the fact that customers’ appetites and appreciation for self-service is growing nearly as fast as the technology to support it is evolving. When it comes to customer service inquiries, 75 percent said they find self-service to be more convenient. Furthermore, if the self-service experience is positive, the majority of participants said it triggers a perspective that the company they’re doing business with is customer-focused and innovative.

Services Get Smarter: Customers want results fast. Customer experience is even better and faster if the company builds in self-service to perform as an electronic concierge, equipped with the technology and intelligence to be proactive, personal, and able to predict what the customer wants before they ask for it.

To handle their 18 million customer service calls yearly, US Airways has deployed just that. The airline’s interactive voice response (IVR) system uses conversational speech recognition. It also includes personalized call handling, automatic caller identification, proactive and predictive information delivery, and automated collection of trip information. These all shorten hold time.

In practice, US Airways callers get what they want the way they want it, using the words they are most comfortable with, as opposed to responses dictated by the technology. Even more impressive, the system automatically uses customer preferences and information about the flights they have booked to deliver a tailored, streamlined caller experience that includes a personal greeting and relevant updates about their trip without the caller needing to ask for it. The system can anticipate the reason customers are calling, thus saving them the time and hassle of explicitly stating it. For example, a customer placing a call well in advance of the actual flight is likely looking to change a reservation, whereas a call placed just hours before the flight is a sure sign the customer is checking upgrade status and whether the flight is scheduled to depart on time.

The proliferation of devices and the rise of empowered consumers who demand flexible, fast, personal customer service make it more challenging than ever to give customers what they want. Mobile apps, intelligent self-service IVR systems, and services powered by speech recognition technology and natural language understanding are required. Customers want options in tune with their lifestyles and life stages that are built to deliver the fast, personal, and convenient customer service they genuinely appreciate.

Dan Nordale is the VP of marketing at Enterprise at Nuance Communications.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2012]

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