Smartphone smart strategies: Customer service in the wireless world

Consumers want self-service applications that make use of the rich text, touch and talk capabilities of their devices to access the answers they need, when they need them and how they want them.
Written by Robert Pieraccini,, Contributor
Commentary - ATM machines have largely replaced bank tellers and online sites like Travelocity have made travel agents mostly unnecessary. For some time, service providers – cable companies and wireless providers – have been trying to replace live human agents with touchtone applications but have been largely unsuccessful as consumers experience frustration with the limited amount of options and the inability to get quick – and more importantly – accurate answers.

Consumers want good service – fast! In the past, talking to a customer service representative was the best option. However, when you stop and think about it, human agents are often just an additional “step” or “roadblock” in the process. The task of training armies of human agents is very expensive and challenging. Today’s agents are not “experts,” but simply individuals trained to mediate between users and the information stored in machines or enterprise systems.

Today, human agents are providing a “natural” interface between users and machines. Machines contain the “know how” to solve a customer’s problems, and more often than not, agents are just there to translate user questions into machine-understandable commands and a machine’s response into plain English. But this translation, from English or any other human language to machine command language and back to English, today can be done by computers as well. It is called natural language interface. But, with the proliferation of the mobile phone, particularly Smartphones, it becomes even more interesting.

In today’s mobile-device driven world, there is a dramatic shift underway that is changing the way people communicate with each other and the companies they do business with. The use of the plain old telephone is declining, giving way to its modern and more advanced progeny, the Smartphone. Smartphones are quickly becoming the center of a digital lifestyle for communicating, entertaining, informing, buying and selling. With Smartphones, voice is just one among many interaction modes, including text, touch and visual inputs and outputs. The growing ubiquity of these connected devices has created a generation of immediacy. When it comes to service, customers don’t want to wait on hold to speak to an agent when they have a rich device at their disposal that is more powerful than computers from just a few years ago. They want self-service applications that make use of the rich text, touch and talk capabilities of their devices to access the answers they need, when they need them and how they want them – whether that is visually through images and text or orally through speech recognition and speech output, or both of them simultaneously.

Here are a few data points that put this revolution in perspective. The Yankee Group reported that in 2009, 65 percent of consumers used their mobile phone to call customer care and that 62 percent of users who bypass the automated IVR would like the opportunity to use their mobile phone screen for guidance and task completion. Cellular Telephone Industries Association (CTIA) reported that 25 percent of the U.S. population does not have a landline phone at home. 54.3 million Smartphones were sold in Q1 2010 alone, which is 17.3 percent of all mobile phone sold. A report from Gartner forecasts that the number of Smartphones will grow from 179 million in 2009 to 525 million in 2012. Smartphones are revolutionizing everything we do and the way we do it. How will this cause customer care to change?

Let’s imagine you need to contact your service provider, perhaps with a question about your bill or how to use a specific feature on your Smartphone. Instead of making a phone call, you tap on an application from your service provider. Since your Smartphone is capable of handling voice or text, you can speak or type your problem, using natural language, in the universal voice search box. Your request is accurately captured, your intent confirmed and then the service you require identified. At this point, whether you get service through an automated self service “widget,” with the help of a live agent or a combination of both, is not important. What is important is that it was fast, intuitive and personalized.

The benefits of providing customer service as described above is clear – streamlined operations and costs while providing great customer service. However, to realize this vision, is not without challenges. There are four primary challenges that service providers and enterprises must overcome in order to take advantage of the Smartphone revolution.

• First is the segmentation of the Smartphone market, which poses an important development and distribution issue. Providing the same user experience that is independent of phone software and hardware such as Blackberry, iPhone, Android, Windows mobile or Nokia requires strategic planning beyond just developing a Smartphone app.

• Second, the linguistic knowledge required for handling natural language input, including the ability to interpret spoken queries and extract the meaning or customer intent, requires specialized semantic processing capabilities that most enterprises do not have today.

• Third, the ability to orchestrate and integrate knowledge about the user profile, preferences and current and past interactions to contextualize and personalize customer interactions requires standard open interfaces to enterprise systems such as CRM, KM, OSS and BSS systems.

• Fourth, the coordination of different modalities like text, touch, and voice input as well as visual and audio output—what is commonly called multimodal interaction—requires the development of advanced technology.

The good news is that these challenges are not insurmountable, even in the short-term. With the adoption of open standards and architectures such as SOA, accessing and integrating enterprise systems becomes much easier. Also, cross platform capabilities, hybrid mobile application development paradigms and plug-and-play widget architectures make supporting multiple mobile operating systems much less challenging. Additionally, Cloud-based speech and semantic services make building and maintaining rich natural language models possible without significant capital investments.

The rapid adoption of smart devices with rich features is and will continue to have a dramatic impact on customer care. Customer Care organizations must quickly evolve to prepare themselves to take advantage of this paradigm shift. In the age of the Smartphone, we can now access great customer service where and when we need it using natural language.

Robert Pieraccini, Chief Technology Officer at SpeechCycle, has been at the leading edge of spoken dialog technology for more than 25 years, both in research as well as in the development of commercial applications.

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