Talk tech beats touch tone at ministry call centre

Talk may be cheap, but it’s saving the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) valuable call centre time, and improving efficiency as well.

The ministry’s Natural Resources Information Centre (NRIC) recently rolled out ICE3, an automated call centre communications system that enables callers to obtain information about MNR and its 43 field offices through interactive, self-service speech-recognition technology. Callers are prompted to utter words or phrases pre-recorded in the system.

ICE3 was developed by Toronto-based ComputerTalk Technology Inc. According to MNR, only weeks after it went live, the new system significantly improved efficiency in the contact centre.

Seventy-three per cent of calls were handled within 20 seconds, up from 62 per cent with the previous touch-tone system. Call waiting queue times also decreased by 25 per cent.

Agent-facilitated call transfers were reduced by 20 per cent as the new system – with its speech recognition feature – easily handles such transactions.

This allows agents to respond to calls rather than serve as switchboard operators, said Wendy Craig, e-channel coordinator at MNR.

She said the desire to better handle the increasing number of low-value call transfers was one reason why NRIC upgraded its previous ICE system to ICE3.

ICE3 also provides other capabilities such as instant messaging, and a user-friendly phone directory for transfer and reference purposes. It has increased lines of business (LOB) from five – with the previous system – to 34.

Interactive speech recognition has also proved to be a better alternative to the more commonly used touch-tone menu system, according to Jennifer Ross, NRIC technical advisor.

She said instead of a multi-level touch-tone menu that frustrates a lot of people, callers can now get required information by speaking into the system.

Speech recognition also works with rotary dial telephones, which touch-tone calling systems do not support, she said.

On an average, NRIC receives around 300 calls per day. ICE3 has been able to field most of these calls, and only about 11 calls a day are actually routed to a call centre agent.

The system also enables the caller to choose to speak to an agent because of “low confidence” on the voice-activated system. There is also a maximum lull time of three seconds, after which the call is automatically transferred to an agent. Unrecognizable words or phrases would also prompt the system to route the call to an agent, Ross said.

This process is beneficial for callers with certain speech difficulties, said Ross. “The good news is if the system does not recognize what the customer is trying to say or if there’s a time out, it goes to an agent and the agent uses their ears, their minds and their hearts when listening to the customer.”

he ICE3 project was implemented over an 11-month period at a cost $160,000, said Ross.

The NRIC technical advisor said her team plans to further enhance the system by fine-tuning pre-recorded scripts for better caller interaction.