At about the same time airline company Jetsgo Inc. looked for ways to cut costs internally so it could lower ticket prices, its executives first turned to voice recognition technology.
Michael Granshaw, vice-president of corporate planning and development for Jetsgo in Montreal, said the airline narrowed down the area of improvement to the call centre, which was getting a lot of repetitive calls regarding flight times, tying up agents’ time when they could be doing other things.
The idea was to find a voice recognition solution that would enable customers to call in and get the information via voice prompts, rather than speaking to a live agent or using interactive voice response (IVR), a technology that enables a touch-tone phone user to get information from or enter data into a database.
“Basically we saw that voice recognition technology was a great way forward – it was a technology that you could relatively easily deploy and, if deployed correctly, would give very quick results.”
In conversations with Bell Canada, which was handling some of Jetsgo’s outsourcing contracts at that time, the name of a Montreal-based voice recognition firm, ComputerTalk Technology Inc., came up. “We sat down with ComputerTalk and we felt very comfortable that their particular solution would work in our environment,” Granshaw said. “They were keen to customize and develop it to the requirements that we needed.”
Jetsgo outlined what it was looking for, and ComputerTalk spent some time at Jetsgo’s call centres to understand how information was provided to consumers so it could later transfer that same functionality into a voice recognition tool. The solution Jetsgo selected is Ice3 (Ice Cubed), which was customized to cover both French and English. “The key was that if (the software) doesn’t recognize all the different accents in French and English, all the different intonations, you end up with a frustrated customer,” Granshaw said.
The software also had to be able to identify different airport names. “Our system is sophisticated enough to handle (names like) Dorval, Pierre Elliot Trudeau. What the Ice Cubed product was proven to do is to provide customization to ensure the technology works well from a customer point of view.”
Granshaw said customization is an “ongoing process,” adding that as Jetsgo gets more calls in, the voice recognition system can become more and more tailored to the airline’s needs. “It is able to pick up ways of naming certain places or times, because people use different terms. We should have this improving over time.” Jetsgo and ComputerTalk put together a four-phase plan to usher in voice recognition functionality.
The first phase, which at press time had just been up and running for a few weeks, was to offer flight information to customers. “That system gave us a 30 per cent reduction in the number of calls coming into our call centre last week, which means that 30 per cent of the calls are being managed by voice recognition technology,” he said. Service levels have improved by nine per cent, and there has been a seven per cent reduction in the rate of abandoned calls.
“What’s happening there is that more calls are now managed automatically. We have much better service levels because we’re helping customers with issues outside of flight information (inquiries).” The system is also of high enough quality to stop calls coming back to customer service for clarification, he said.
The second phase, which at press time was on the verge of implementation, is a proactive notification function where a customer who has already booked a flight will automatically get a voice mail or e-mail if any changes occur that could affect their itinerary.
“For example, if we suddenly have additional flight and might be able to reduce (the traveller’s) connection time, we can inform the customer about that,” Granshaw explained. Providing flight status through voice recognition is the third stage. “This is where the customer would request flight status or information if there is change, running up to time of departure … It’s putting the control in the consumer’s hands.”
The last step would be to provide the customer with the ability to book a flight through voice recognition. “I think that’s a number of months away.”
Jean Paul Brouillard, director of ComputerTalk’s Quebec operations, said voice recognition is finally taking off. “It’s at the embryo level, but it’s really picking up.”
He said most firms that currently use IVR systems will upgrade to voice recognition within the next two years; speech technology will run on the same engine as IVR and will extend the life of IVR systems.
Speech recognition adoption will be indicative of a “me too” attitude where companies will try to keep up with their competitors who already have speech software in place, Brouillard added.
In the past there were many companies that did not have good experiences with older voice platforms. “They would create a lot of frustration at the customer base, and customers were reluctant to try it again.” Older voice platforms were not as close to natural language as they are today.
To get them to work properly, “you had to speak machine language, but nobody knew what the machine was expecting,” Brouillard said.