Monday, August 17, 2009

Listening to the voice of the customer

Two companies are showing that in today's touchy economy, making the sale is all about the way you respond to a customer via the telephone. And not only are they are listening very carefully but also they are using sophisticated software systems to help implement their solutions. One of them, called, is brand new, launching this week. The other one is very well established, called Varolii, and we'll get to them in a moment.

Aisle411 is used to help consumers find a specific item in a store. Say it is a hardware store that you don't often frequent, so you don't have the store layout encoded in your brain. You spend the first few minutes wandering the aisles, or asking an employee where your item is located. Wouldn't it be nice if a service could tell you where you can find it – by aisle number and shelf position?

I have a confession to make: I am not a shopper. I don't like to buy stuff, of any kind. But what Aisle411 is doing is noteworthy just for people like me, who measure the amount of time inside a store in microseconds. According to their research, more than 13% of shoppers leave a store without finding what they came for in the first place.

Aisle411 uses speech recognition software and some elegant programming to direct shoppers to the right place in the particular store they are trying to navigate. You just call them up and say what you are looking for.

Behind this phone call there is a huge database of products, store layouts, and other information. And while Aisle411 is just getting started with a few Ace Hardware stores in the St. Louis suburbs, they have big plans to work with a number of national retailers, who see this as a way to differentiate themselves and offer up better customer service, as well as to increase sales by helping their customers actually buy more stuff when they are roaming the aisles. And Aisle411 is turning its systems into a way to provide better leads management, inventory management, and real-time tracking for store owners. They can deliver coupons for related products to the consumers’ cell phone via a text message, too. And the service is free for consumers.

Now let's contrast what an older company is doing to help provide better customer service with automated call center software. What do you do when you get a incoming robotic phone call from one of these services? I know what I do, I hang up. I don't want to talk to a machine. But to try to keep more people on the line, as well as actually provide better customer service, you have to combine the best bits of psychology with technology, as the folks from Varolii – one of the leading vendors in this software -- have found out.

The company's automated attendant completes over a billion calls a year for many large banks, airlines, and others that need to make customer service calls. They have begun learning from all these calls and now apply a little bit of psychology and population dynamics in helping their customers prepare the right series of voice prompts for their automated systems. Their goal is to help keep more people on the line and provide better customer service.

Varolii has learned that different age groups respond differently to how they are contacted by their systems. With Gen Yers, you want to send a text message and then follow up with a voice call, which is exactly the reverse of how to deal with a GenXer: call first and then follow up with a confirming text message, while for baby boomers call first and then follow up with email. And the strategy for seniors is to use voice prompts that speak slower and can be repeated. They have also found that the time of day and the sex of the recorded voice matters in terms of getting the best response too. How many of us have heard "press one for English, two in Spanish?" – well, that isn’t the best prompt design, because someone could hit the wrong key on the phone dialer pad by mistake and then start receiving prompts in the wrong language. A better method would be to move the response key further away, such as pressing 9 for Spanish.

They found that calls that avoided the use of Social Security numbers but could authenticate the account holder with some other specific information, such as an airline frequent flier ID or bank account number, increase the probability of action by 30%. And using the word "now" in a prompt, such as "press one now to activate your card," add a sense of urgency and that will translate into better results.

Finally, unlike the movie Jerry Maguire, you don't have me at hello. In fact, you want to avoid starting any calls with "hello" – when you remove hello from the initial greetings, you get a 50% increase in live answers. The company suggests starting off with identifying the company name and purpose of the call, and start talking immediately upon when the call is answered.

Both Varolii and Aisle411 are showing that it pays to listen and track what customers are doing over the phone. Both also marry some sophisticated voice response software with lo-tech phone calls to help improve customer service. It just shows you that when it comes to doing innovative things over the telephone, we still have a lot to learn.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.