CIBC gives clients something to talk about

In a time when faster is better and ease is a necessity rather than a luxury, CIBC’s adoption of a speech recognition telephone service is not only handy, but a distinct competitive advantage, according to the bank’s director of channel strategy and development for CIBC telephone banking.

Toronto-based Karen Gellner said that the technology, developed by Norstan Canada Ltd., InterVoice-Brite and SpeechWorks International Inc. was adopted in order to help make the lives of CIBC’s customers easier.

“Customers are interested in more self-serve options,” she said. “This helps make banking fast and simple.”

The application allows customers to complete bill registration from any telephone using only their voice. Unlike other comparable systems, the CIBC service does not require a touch-tone keypad, but instead uses an application that recognizes and digitizes audio by breaking sounds down into phonemes. Once a word is spoken, the system matches the sounds against its database and compares the word spoken to possible matches of vocabulary within the database.

Steve Chambers, vice-president of world-wide marketing for SpeechWorks in Boston explained the process.

“We come up with an N-best list. That’s where we determine what our confidence is that what we thought you said is what you said,” Chambers said. “We take those phonemes that are broken down and map them against the database, and then we say: I’m 99 per cent sure that they said New York City. Or I’m 75 per cent sure that they said Boston, but they might have said Austin, so if it’s 75 per cent sure it might prompt you and say, ‘I think you said Boston. Is that correct?’ If the caller says, ‘No, I said Austin,’ the system knows to rule out Boston. Once it has exactly what the caller says, it takes action on it.”

One of the application’s most interesting capabilities according to Gellner is its Call Learn feature. This allows the system to automatically adjust its acoustic model, which is particularly important in Canada, with its large multicultural population and two official languages.

“Let’s say you built a speech application in the southern part of the United States and there was a point in the speech application where we’re asking the caller a yes/no question,” Chambers proposed. “And in our vocabulary, we don’t have as a valid synonym for ‘yes’, the words ‘yes, ma’am.’ Let’s say the system has a female voice and so southern callers in Georgia and Mississippi will definitely say ‘yes, ma’am’ instead of just ‘yes’. Because it’s not in the vocabulary, the system would come back and say ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you said. Did you say yes or no?’ Then they’ll always say ‘yes’. We can set a tolerance level such that after a certain frequency of times that an event happens, the system will automatically accept ‘yes, ma’am’ as a valid synonym for ‘yes’ and automatically change the acoustic model, adding that to the vocabulary. That means that these apps get smarter as they’re used. “

The CIBC system added speech recognition to its automated telephone service to enable its English and French CIBC Mortgage Inc. customers to obtain current mortgage rates and information about a specific mortgage rate, principal payment options and history, tax payments and reprints of various statements.

Elizabeth Herrell, a senior industry analyst for Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group, insisted that speech technologies are an emerging market, particularly in light of the slow development of wireless devices. According to Herrell, the type of services offered by CIBC and its voice recognition applications are simply the tip of the iceberg.

“What’s going forward are new applications to interact with a Web site with voice commands,” Herrell said. “This is great for mobile users, as it gives them quick access to information. Businesses will like it too, because it will replace huge call centres that handle very basic transactions. There’s a big business that’s going to come out of this”

Gellner agrees. “It’s a win for both our customers and for us. It’s a win for our customers who get more self-serve options. It’s a win for the company because we can automate things that we wouldn’t have been able to automate before.”