Self-Service Gets its Voice

By Steve Rutledge and Allen Bonde

Self-service has become a buzzword across nearly every business sector, from the supermarket to the information technology support desk. Driven by efforts to force down service costs and deliver greater convenience to consumers, we now have self-service banking – not only via ATMs but also online. We also have kiosks at the airport for check-in and flight status and new tools at our fingertips to set up our cell phones, mix and download our own music, and even troubleshoot our broadband service.

Along with new consumer applications, businesses have kept pace with new self-service information portals, human resource solutions, and help desk tools. Yet despite the growth of self-service, there has been a surprising lack of coordination between various self-service applications, especially when it comes to voice-driven self-service and solutions delivered via the Web. Most organizations still have silos of Web and voice applications, with many using proprietary platforms, resulting in limited integration or reuse of content across channels.

At the same time, as organizations look to leverage their online channels and make Web applications more interactive and compelling for a broader set of users, we see a focus on making self-help more like assisted service – with the cost structure of the Web, of course.

Chat and instant messaging is one example which has the potential to span both modes of interaction, especially via automated question-answering systems and “chat bots.” Yet at the end of the day, these approaches are more about extending self-service than supporting new user devices or emulating a live voice at the other end of the line.

Voice Applications are the Missing Link: As the lines between self- and assisted-service continue to blur, it’s clear that voice-enabled applications are the missing link. This is why the ubiquitous voice portal is an idea that continues to attract a following (and funding). This is why giants like Microsoft seem to be placing their bets that when it comes to the future of self-service, it’s the phone rather than the PC that will be the most prevalent end-user access device.

While kiosks or a Web browser are great channels for graphical information and content-driven interactions like e-commerce or financial portfolio management, voice applications are better for making changes quickly to a service such as adding more minutes to your wireless plan or ordering an on-demand movie from your cable or satellite provider. Voice-driven self-service also has significant potential for business-to-business uses such as acting as a dispatch for a field-service group for when agents check in, or when new service requests are issued.

In these service environments, the value proposition is quite clear. With the cost of contact centers and technical support continuing to escalate, there is a growing need to not only deflect calls, but also make the received calls cheaper and more effective.

Interactive voice response systems have been part of the solution, yet many legacy IVR systems remain silos, due to proprietary platforms and notoriously difficult programming languages and interfaces. Moving beyond this is necessary to not only provide a consistent customer experience across channels, but also to maximize the productivity of service and support staff as well as software developers, reusing existing content and business knowledge. These challenges require an updated view of the voice channel and a focus on creating a new class of unified self-service solutions that integrate voice while following Web standards, design principles, and ease of use.

Unifying Web and Voice: Repurposing Web content and providing a consistent experience whether users are online or on the phone requires more than simply adopting VoiceXML. First, designing a flexible, personalized voice interface is the goal.  A speech-enabled application should allow for customers or other users to quickly navigate a set of menus, be able to go back or forward, skip ahead, or even “drill-down” like when you click on a link on a website. Tools should be graphical and simplify content development and tuning. All of this provides not only greater interactivity and simplified management – but also a better user experience, which ultimately drives greater customer satisfaction and retention.

Second, offering built-in tools for testing, debugging, and simulating interaction logic and processes can ensure rapid deployment and updates. Ideally, businesses should also be able to use the same business logic for both their Web and voice applications.

Third, providing reporting tools and ways to analyze questions, customer needs, and response effectiveness provides a way to optimize the voice channel.  This is done the same way Web analytics are applied to Internet applications.

Other lessons from the Web include the importance of segmenting users and routing them to the right channel, so escalation is minimized and specific requests are matched to the right resource. This requires understanding of the context for interactions as well as the needs of each user. From a process perspective, it is also essential to focus on ways to drive initial adoption through incentives, and then provide options so users can easily opt out of the self-service interaction to reach a live agent. The ability to seamlessly move customers from self- to assisted-service will be a fundamental differentiator for controlling costs while providing uniquely valuable customer service.

All of this depends on breaking down silos and applying best practices from the Web to voice applications. It also requires changing lingering perceptions that there will always be separate applications for serving customers on the phone versus the Internet, especially as network convergence of voice and data becomes more of a reality each day.

In our experience, the vision of one platform for self-service is becoming a reality. At the same time, voice will play a key role in many future self-service initiatives, especially now that technology has improved and users continue to drive innovation and performance. As call centers and organizations look to build out ways to move from assisted service to advanced Web self-service, they need to re-visit the role of voice applications, and look for ways to provide true multi-channel service.

Steve Rutledge is vice president of product and solutions marketing at Genesys Telecommunications Labs. Allen Bonde is the senior vice president of strategy at eVergance, a management consulting and systems integration firm focused on CRM optimization and Web self-service.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2006]

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