Many times, consumers experience a trade-off when they try to find satisfaction through machines: what they gain in convenience they lose with modern-day annoyances that come with the new technology. Today, you can check your savings account balance at any time of the night, but not until having to cope with about five rounds of touch-tone multiple-choice questions. You can order clothing online, but if there are delivery problems, e-mailing customer service can be frustrating, especially if you have to wait hours-or days-for a response. For years, speech recognition technology was viewed with a more critical eye. Not only was the technology seen as clumsy, with people having to overly annunciate and practically shout into the phone to be heard, but many times, the technology simply didn't work properly. The concept of talking to a computer or telephone and having it (accurately) respond to your commands was seen as something for science fiction. Passed up as unreliable a decade ago, speech recognition today receives high marks for its high completion rate, accuracy, and large vocabulary. Retailers are so confident of speech recognition's power that the technology now manages customer service. This is no small task in a culture where consumers expect next day delivery and the ability to do business at any time of day or night. But according to the Gartner Group, "Speech recognition technology finally works. (It is) an emerging `self-serve' technology that will enhance customer service while reducing personnel costs." Speech recognition software and hardware have the capability to change the way we think of customer service. While customer service today is dominated by Dual Tone Multi Frequency (DTMF) systems that require the sometimes tedious use of touch-tone phone keypads, tomorrow belongs to the ease, efficiency and cost savings of speech recognition. Here are several reasons why speech recognition is so well suited for customer service: Ease of use. A company using DTMF customer service provides the following outline to consumers who wish to change their PIN number using their touch-tone phone: Press 1, then 4, then wait for the dial-in welcome, then press 2 and star. Then press one and star. Enter your (personal code) and star, then press in your PIN and star. Then press 6 and star. Now you can start(!) the procedure to change your PIN number. Under this plan, consumers would have six rounds of button pushing before beginning to do what they want. Is it any wonder that 60% of consumers using these systems have hung up on them before completing their task? While convenient, DTMF systems are notorious for their tedious routing. Sometimes, tasks that would take less than a minute with a live person can be frustrating and time-consuming as customers are subjected to several "multiple choice" options. With the proper programming, a consumers could have duplicated the above procedure by simply stating, "I want to change my PIN number." Instead of choosing from a menu which may not list their needs, consumers just say what they want. Furthermore, unlike DTMF systems, speech technology can be used from both touch-tone and rotary phones. It's what customers want. When it comes to customer service, consumers want efficiency, speed, accuracy, convenience, friendly interaction, and a system that is easy to understand. With the exception of "friendly interaction," speech recognition technology fulfills all these needs. (While speech recognition is certainly cordial and professional, we're assuming that it is impossible to achieve friendly interaction without a live call center representative.) Companies prefer speech recognition software and hardware for the same reasons they appreciate DTMF; it is cost-effective, it enables their customers to use it at any time, and it delivers a consistent message. But unlike DTMF, consumers also appreciate the new technology. In surveys, 83% of consumers are at least somewhat satisfied with speech, and 74% claim that speech is as good as a live Customer Service Representative (CSR) or better. Finally, 60% of those surveyed say that they actually prefer being handled by speech technology to CSRs. It's cost-effective. When implemented, a speech recognition program can cost 94% less than a human CSR. No, that isn't a typo. Here are the figures: combining salary, recruitment and management costs, as well as the expenses of the facilities and benefits, a CSR costs an estimated $34,800 a year. With a speech port, the installation, maintenance and overhead costs total $3,333 a year. Broken down by call, customer service costs $1.47 per call through a CSR, and $.09 for a speech recognition port, 16 times less expensive. All for a service that 60% of consumers say they prefer. Positive identification. One of the biggest limits of DTMF technology is its weak security. Many times, users only need a few Social Security digits and an account number to have full access to a savings account. Also, because of its structure, DTMF systems need to rely on PIN numbers that can be easily forgotten or stolen. Speech recognition is so advanced today that consumers only have to "register" once using their voice, and their voice patterns are secured on a small file for any future transactions. When the consumers calls the system again, he or she needs only to say a few key words (usually a natural element of the call) and has full access to the account. Each voice pattern is unique, and can't be duplicated or changed. Even if the user has a sore throat, the customer will still be recognized. Speech recognition eliminates the need for tedious, extra steps in the identification process that are unreliable to begin with. In fact, speech recognition systems can be used as a two-tiered security system, prompting users to speak their account or name, and simultaneously checking the validity of both the information and the voice. If there are any discrepancies, the caller is routed to a live representative. A proven technology. Speech recognition is now being used with phenomenal results. Today, Fortune 1000 companies such as Sears, Hewlett-Packard and Federal Express use the technology to give consumers technical help with computer problems, give stock quotes, and provide 401K account information. In the case of Federal Express, the technology has been so useful in helping consumers track packages that it is now used for scheduling pick-ups and ordering supplies. But despite its attractive price tag, ease of use and popularity among consumers, speech recognition should not be used for every possible DTMF application. For instance, applications with a very short start-up time or a very short life are not a good fit for speech recognition. But when the elements are right, companies can come to view speech technology as the answer to their customer service needs. Previously seen as unreliable, speech technology is now affordable, reliable, proven, and in demand. For companies willing to take the gamble, speech technology promises to be a rare breed-technology that enhances customer service with virtually none of the trade-offs that have made DTMF technology a modern day annoyance.

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