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.