Finally Speech Recognition has its Day – Digital Transformation and Customer Care

Feb 23, 2016

For those of you who are speech geeks like me and lived through the late 1980’s and early 90’s in awe of speech-enabling an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) unit, this is for you.  Our day has arrived.  Back then I thought just changing the user-interface to respond to yes, no and zero through ten was amazing.  I was even more intrigued when grammars expanded and we started down the path of directed dialogs and natural language recognition, because suddenly the pain of IVR’s not taking alpha-numeric input went away.

In the mid-nineties we got to play with the first round of personal virtual assistants with cool products, such as ‘Hey Anita’, General Magic, Wildfire and others.  These early precursors to Siri and Cortana enabled personal telephony, allowing us to check calendars, make appointments, check stock prices, sports scores, the weather, and even daily astrological forecasts and Latin American soap opera news (I’m not kidding about the last).  But in comparison with today’s virtual assistants these were just toys and quickly went away.

Then we entered the 2000’s and a real struggle ensued to develop natural language systems used in more modern virtual assistants and ‘How can I help you?” IVR applications.  We began to see speech recognition show up in consumer products, such as Microsoft Kinect on the Xbox, and speech-driven toy robots.  While speech recognition wasn’t main stream, we were on our way.  However, we still hadn’t seen speech technologies reach its full potential in the eyes of the consumer.

Yet our day has arrived as basic speech technologies have become fairly commonplace.  When it comes to customer care this isn’t because we have a vast installed base of well-designed speech–driven IVRs and virtual assistants, although there are many great ones.  It can be attributed more to older generations of consumers being hammered with the growing pains of speech-driven IVRs and voice dialing on mobile devices, and younger generations adopting consumer goods –pre-loaded with speech recognition. 

And then, of course, there was Siri.  Backed by Apple’s marketing dollars, Siri did more for the advancement of speech technologies in the eyes of consumers than perhaps anything done in the decade before it.  Even when Siri didn’t do well, it only attracted more consumer attention as people began to play with it. 

The acceptance of Apple’s Siri and other speech applications also drew the attention of other big players in the industry with deep roots in speech technology research.  Google, Nuance, IBM, Amazon and Microsoft, for example, have been working on applications that combine advancements in speech technologies with other resources such as search, artificial intelligence, knowledge databases, machine learning, neural networks, and Big Data.  These consumer-facing products have been getting far better at not just understanding what customers say, but what they mean by it, which opens the door to some pretty interesting possibilities in customer service and changing the Customer Experience.

Imagine integrating all customer-facing interaction channels in a seamless omnichannel experience, that combines real-time data with other data about the customer, along with context, and applies intelligence to the application to create a virtual shopping assistant.  Your mobile device is recognized as you enter the store. The application knows your purchase history and preferences and buying habits, and combines that with in-store navigation and location-based services.  It provides suggestions based on past purchases, checks availability, provides multimodal navigation on the mobile device from price comparisons to one click access to live assistance, to purchasing and shipping options – all facilitated by a multimodal speech and text-driven user-interface.

This can be done now, but the contact center industry is taking this further by talking about digitally transforming the experience by broadening the stakeholders involved.  Let’s say, for example that you could take a consumer application such as WAZE and tie it into a partner application that could assist the customer with a related issue.  WAZE, a speech-driven, crowd-sourced mobile navigation app which enables drivers to skirt around traffic blockages and cut down on driving time, is being embraced by thousands of users because of the intelligence it brings to navigation and its ease of use.  Users can navigate with voice, but also report on real-time traffic and road conditions, furthering the “intelligence” of the real-time navigation.

With digital transformation, applications such as WAZE could be tied together to help with multiple functions throughout a consumer’s day.  For instance, the app not only navigates but also has access to the user’s calendar, and has context around that person’s habits.  It knows after work she has company coming over for dinner.  If there is an accident, it tries to navigate her around it, but if not then it sends a text to her guests saying she will be late, and allows command and control of a partner product, such as NEST, to turn up the heat in the house and start pre-heating the oven.

Technology challenges aside, it’s envisioning the possible that leads to the development of the future. And while we haven’t arrived at our final destination, at least speech technologies have now become a trusted enabler to the digital transformation of customer care that is the next wave of development after omni-channel.  We are no longer wondering if people will use speech if we put it into an application, but rather, envisioning all of the new ways we can embed those technologies into applications that will transform how customers interact with companies.

Nancy Jamison


Nancy Jamison is a Principal Analyst within Customer Contact within the Digital Transformation group at Frost & Sullivan. She covers all aspects of customer contact including cloud and premise-based systems and applications in the core areas of inbound/outbound routing, IVR, Workforce Optimization, and recording and analytics, with a particular focus on peripheral and emerging areas that impact the Customer Experience. These include speech technologies, omni-channel customer care, Big Data, digital marketing, Back Office Workforce Optimization, and Support Interaction Optimization.

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