Nicer Voices a Cost-Effective, Customer-Pleasing IVR Improvement

Ann All

A few months back I wrote a post in which I wondered whether customers preferred to work with contact center agents who are native speakers of their own language. I concluded that, yes, they largely do, but what they really want is to speak with agents who can solve their problems.

 

I was somewhat intrigued, then, by a recent Wall Street Journal article that describes how some companies saw increased contact center customer-satisfaction levels and fewer connections to live agents when they opted for friendlier-sounding voices in their automated customer-service systems.

 

Insurer Aflac replaced a "cold and inconsistent" voice on its customer-service line in July with a middle-aged female voice that company officials felt better matched its "warm and conversational" brand and that might help calm stressed callers. Aflac has 3 percent fewer customer-service agents this year, though it expects call volume to increase to 11.5 million, up from 11 million calls in 2009. Virgil Miller, Aflac vice president of client services, attributes this partly to the new voice, which the company thinks has led fewer customers to want to speak with a live agent.

 

Customer satisfaction with the system has also improved. Aflac surveyed about 200 callers in April, before the change, and again in August. It found overall customer satisfaction had grown about 7 percent with the new voice. Not bad results for a project that cost Aflac about $8,000. Says Miller:

More customers are willing to give technology a chance if you can make the automated system pleasant for them.

Insurer Asurion, which covers cell phones for loss or damage not covered by warranties, coached a voice actress to inflect her voice in the same way that an experienced customer-service agent would and rewrote her script to sound similar to a live agent. Customer satisfaction with the system has increased between 5 and 10 percent, and more customers now use the automated system before being transferred to a live agent, which reduces call time.

 


One of the script tweaks mentioned in the article that I liked: Asurion's automated system tells the caller how many questions it will ask, giving them a better idea of what they're in for at the beginning of the call. That's exactly the kind of change that can make customers more comfortable with using an interactive voice response system. I wrote about other ways to improve IVR capabilities in the post "Customer-Friendly IVR: Not an Oxymoron," sharing some great suggestions from Customer Think blogger Wim Rampen.

 

While Aflac's and Asurion's experiences hardly offer definitive proof that warmer voices automatically improve customer experiences with IVR, I think a pleasant voice just makes sense as part of an overall focus on improving usability. And as Aflac's example shows, these kinds of projects don't have to cost a lot of money.



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Nov 3, 2010 2:11 AM Kirsi O'Connor Kirsi O'Connor  says:

I think that changing the voice of a poorly-designed IVR is purely cosmetic. However, if the IVR is well designed, I think putting some extra thought into the voice offers a nice finishing touch.

If you think about it, IVRs are often the first touch point for the customer so as much attention should be put into them from branding point of views as to the corporate website. Many companies carefully plan their website, analyze visitor patterns, conduct research and frequently revamp their website in the name of improving the customer experience. IVRs don't seem to get the same level of attention while it is clear that IVRs are part of the customer experience and that improvements in this area contribute to higher customer satisfaction, customer retention and bottom line savings.

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Nov 4, 2010 3:47 AM Craig Campbell Craig Campbell  says:

Thanks, interesting cases and results.  I come from the Text-to-Speech side, where demand for more "lifelike" voices is perhaps even greater.

To your larger point - how should the term "quality voice" be defined.   With TTS it's easy to measure empirical figures like how many simultaneous channels the engine can support ... but even after 30 years, our industry still struggles with how to effectively measure voice quality.  

Many in the industry believe IVONA has the highest quality TTS voices, but I think that perfect quality will remain elusive until clearer milestones and targets are agreed upon by both vendors and users alike.

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