I’m in California this week (for the first time in my life) and I’ve been cruising around the Bay area and meeting with execs from some of the many software companies serving the call/contact industry. I have to tell you that I am absolutely amazed at the number of tech companies that are concentrated between Santa Cruz and Oakland. I mean, I always knew they were here - but actually seeing how many there are has really made an impression on me.
Anyway, I have a keen interest in speech technologies and one of the companies we met with today was Voxify, which has its headquarters in Alameda. This is a small but very progressive company which has developed some very hot, cutting-edge speech “self-service” applications which are used to improve business performance and reduce call center costs. I don’t want to say that these applications are one day going to replace agents – but in a way, that is what it is coming down to. In fact, Voxify even refers to its products as “Automated Agents.”
You see, speech technology has now reached the point where the applications are capable of interacting with customers in a surprisingly natural way. For example, a sophisticated speech engine such as Voxify’s “Conversation Engine” can now ask a customer an open-ended question, like “What can I do for you today?” and then accurately “interpret” the customer’s response and complete a transaction without an agent ever picking up the line.
Of course, these apps are still used to simply “steer” a call to the agent with the best skills to handle it – so I wouldn’t go so far as to say that droves of agents are soon going to lose their jobs. But in many cases, if it is a fairly simple transaction, the app itself is now sufficient to handle the customer’s needs. Thanks to the increasing sophistication of today’s speech algorithms – plus the ever-increasing speed of today’s processors – these new engines are not only capable of asking a question and the interpreting the response, they can actually provide a set of “options” to choose from. Furthermore, if the engine isn’t entirely sure what you just said (for example, there are many words in the English language that sound similar), it can repeat what it “thinks” you said and then confirm your response. What this basically means is that we have reached the age where speech apps now have the “artificial intelligence” needed to carry on natural conversations and intuitively “know” what a customer wants – even if the customer speaks less than perfect English!
What’s also cool is that Voxify’s speech engine can be readily “programmed” by a user with very little IT knowledge or skill to, for example, adhere to certain business rules, or perhaps to interpret certain words or “slang” terms that are common in a particular region or among a particular group of customers (“… like, dude man, whoa …”). This ease of customization is key because, let’s face it, not every company does customer service the same way – and not every company’s customers are the same as another’s.
Many of Voxify’s clients are big names in the customer service industry – Ticketmaster, Expedia, Priceline and RiteAid, to name a few – and for them, Voxify’s “automated agents” are ideal for handling relatively simple customer service tasks, such as taking reservations, selling products or answering account requests (the types of calls where the customer already knows what exactly they want – the ones where there really is no “geez, why are you calling us?”). Amazingly, Voxify claims it can deliver an integrated, completely customized enterprise speech self-service application to any size company in less than 8 weeks (!).
What’s also interesting is how these apps are now being used for outbound calls. For example, Roger Nunn, the company’s VP of sales, told us about how RiteAid is now using Voxify’s “automated agents” to deliver “reminder” calls to customers whose prescriptions have run out and may need to be refilled. He said RiteAid and other pharmacies have discovered through research that a high percentage of people have a tendency to forget about getting their prescriptions re-filled when they’re supposed to. In RiteAid’s case, the company is using the automated agents to call a customer and remind them that their prescription needs to be refilled – and then ask them of they wish to refill it. This enables the company cash in on what might otherwise have been a lost sale – plus it results in higher customer satisfaction.
I think we can expect to see a lot more of these outbound speech apps in the future – and not just ones that will give customers “reminders.” I think the day is fast approaching when we will start getting “cold calls” from retailers using automated agents to sell their wares – and this is something that stands to completely revolutionize the entire telemarketing industry. For one thing, an “automated agent” always delivers its message in same cheerful tone - whether it is the first call of the day or the one hundredth. An automated agent never gets tired, never calls in sick, never eats or sleeps or goes to the bathroom … never complains that its headset is hurting its ears … well, you get the idea. Some retailers are no doubt salivating over the idea of using automated agents to bring in new business and boost sales among their existing customers – but I guess the big question is, how many of us are ready to start receiving these calls?