High-tech software helps companies improve your call-center experience

Automated phone systems are a ubiquitous element of modern life -- and a common example of the mixed blessings of technology.

Customers lament the difficulty of reaching a human being on the line or being forced to navigate layers of irrelevant options and long waits on hold to reach customer service.

One company is using technology to monitor customers' frustrations and route calls accordingly. NICE Systems' artificial intelligence software monitors calls for signs of irritation and key words such as "cancel," which can signal an irate customer.

The software measures more than 20 voice characteristics including cadence, speed and volume, said Eyal Rudnik, product marketing manager for the Israeli company.

"We take a baseline reading at the beginning of the call during the first five or 10 seconds, and measure any deviation," Rudnik said. "We can tell what triggers irritation, like being left on hold, or an extra-long voicemail (tree)."

In addition to emotion, the software is programmed to recognize key phrases such as "cancel my account" or a mention of a competitor's name. NICE Systems' big clients include Dish Networks, IBM and Motorola.

Innovations such as emotion monitoring software are being developed as consumers' grow increasingly fed up with call center customer service.

North American call center customer satisfaction fell from 84 percent in 2005 to 62.9 percent last year, according to a soon-to-be-published report by Dimension Data, a Johannesburg, South Africa technology provider.

The company surveyed 403 call center operators worldwide. Because the customer satisfaction levels are based upon the companies' own surveys, it's difficult to pinpoint a reason for the sharp drop, said Cara Diemont, editor of the report.

The companies conducting the internal surveys may be discovering more customer frustrations by asking more relevant questions, Diemont said. But the survey results also may reflect customers' befuddlement with the latest generation of phone systems, including the fast-growing adoption of voice-recognition systems.

"The more gloomy interpretation of (the survey) is that contact centers are starting to put in improvements, but in the short-term added new complexities that are actually making things slightly more difficult for consumers," Diemont said.

NICE Systems bills its software program as a time-saving alternative to companies assigning supervisors to randomly listen to a handful of calls. "These companies receive thousands of calls a day, and it's not humanly possible to listen to all the calls," she said.

The company's automated system monitors all calls and generates reports to companies highlighting potential problems. In addition, it logs how long a caller is kept on hold and what information is appearing on an employee's screen during the call.

Increasing adoption of voice-recognition programs that require callers to speak requests rather than punch a keypad is posing new challenges, Dimension Data's Diemont said.

The 2006 survey found that 13.5 percent of call centers already have installed speech-recognition technology, and 25 percent have plans to implement it.

Those and other redesigns of automated phone systems have the potential to alienate more customers, Diemont said. It's a pitfall they can avoid by being more up-front with consumers.

"Businesses need to educate consumers about what changes they're making and why it's good for (customers)," she said.

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, which has won several recent accolades for customer service, uses some of NICE's programs but not the one that analyzes callers' emotions. The Wellesley-based insurer receives up to 4,000 calls a day at its offices in Quincy's Crown Colony Office Park, said David Segal, executive vice president for customer service and market performance.

Supervisors review tapes compiled by NICE that monitor whether representatives greet customers in a friendly manner, Segal said. The program also monitors key phrases that Harvard Pilgrim call center employees are expected to include in every call -- such as "Is there anything else we can help you with today?" -- or reminding them how to contact the company outside of business hours.

Because NICE Systems also analyzes what screens or Web pages employees use to answer a member's questions, that information can be used to retrain employees, Segal said.

"NICE helps us capture the sequence of screens that a customer service rep uses and finds out which set of screens got the answers fastest and most effectively," he said.

Harvard Pilgrim also encourages employees to offer gifts such as Dunkin' Donuts gift certificates to members who are dissatisfied with their service.

"It's something that says, 'We messed up, it's not your fault and we value you as a customer,'" Segal said.

Contact Steve Adams at sadams@ledger.com.

 
 
HOW NICE WORKS
 
NICE Systems' software monitors customers' frustrations during calls  to call centers. It detects changes in volume,  pitch and cadence that can indicate the company has an irate customer on  its hands. The data is compiled in reports and used to retrain customer  service reps and redesign automated phone systems. NICE Systems' software monitors customers' frustrations during calls to  call centers. It detects changes in volume,  pitch and cadence that can indicate the company has an irate customer on  its hands. The data is compiled in reports and used to retrain customer  service reps and redesign automated phone systems.