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Maura K. Ammenheuser
Maura K. Ammenheuser
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Loud and Clear

By leveraging speech technologies in their contact centers, insurers are improving customer service and cutting costs.

There's a lot of talk going around the insurance industry these days. To improve customer service, insurers are increasingly turning to speech-based technology. For years, carriers have relied on call centers to handle consumers' questions. Automated touch-tone phone systems have typically been the link between the public and the call center. But several industry experts say that the familiar touch-tone systems may soon go the way of the rotary phone.

Today, speech-enabled technology - often called IVR, for interactive voice response - has finally improved to the point where insurance companies can use it enterprisewide for an array of functions. "I suspect over the next two to three years this will start to proliferate," says Diane Halliwell, director of contact center solutions for Align Communications, a global IT firm headquartered in New York. "Done right, these things can really enhance your business."

Many financial services institutions already use speech technology for call steering, says Peter Ryan, an analyst with London-based business information firm Datamonitor. A voice-enabled automated call system determines customers' needs through voice prompts and quickly routes calls to the appropriate personnel.

A good system lets callers skip many of the prompts that they typically encounter with a touch-tone system, Halliwell notes. A voice-based solution helps callers complete their business faster, which in turn increases customer satisfaction, she says.

Soon, Datamonitor's Ryan predicts, insurers also will begin relying on speech technology for more than call steering, allowing customers to change policies, pay bills and more. "Whatever a customer can do on the Web, they should be able to do on the phone," he asserts.

While its potential in other areas remains largely untapped, the No. 1 benefit speech technology offers insurance companies today is improved customer service. "Speech technology offers financial institutions the ability to provide customers with greater interaction and ease of use," Ryan says. For example, speech systems don't require people to spell names on the touch-tone pad. "Callers can interact directly with the interface in their own vocabulary and at their own pace. This increases customer satisfaction and long-term customer loyalty," he suggests.

Voice-based technology also means cost savings for the carrier, Align's Halliwell notes. The automation frees employees from routine matters and saves money on 800-number lines by shortening calls, she says.

But, voice-prompted technology was slow to gain momentum, Halliwell points out, because for many years it was poorly applied, prone to inaccuracies and easily confused - by background noise, for example. "We still have issues with noise, issues with dialect and issues with [customer] comfort," Halliwell admits, but she adds that the technology has vastly improved.

Until relatively recently, speech-enabled solutions weren't mature enough to handle insurers' requirements, and the interfaces between customers and carriers were poorly designed, according to Nathan David, product management director for the contact center group at San Jose, Calif.-based Empirix. For example, an early-generation system might ask a caller, "What would you like to do?" That was too open-ended, with too many potential answers, David explains. Today's systems limit potential answers by asking more specific questions, such as, "Do you want to report a claim or check on the status of an existing claim?"

Other recent improvements include increased computing speeds, complex algorithms used for improved speech recognition and more. "The technology is rapidly advancing to the point where, soon enough, the interfaces will be able to keep pace with humans and omit things such as coughs and sneezes," Datamonitor's Ryan says.

Current technology keeps behavior in mind, too, not just literal speech, Empirix's David adds. For example, if a caller wants the second of four listed options, he'll likely interrupt the menu after the second item. Even if the system doesn't recognize exactly what the caller says, it can assume the person wants the second item, because that's when he spoke.

How Can I Help You?

Successful implementation of voice-enabled technology solutions requires scalable products, preferably ones "programmed in an open-standards environment to leverage existing Web offerings," Datamonitor's Ryan suggests. But the most important factor in a successful implementation, however, has less to do with the technology than with a insurer's goals. Understanding the purpose of an interactive voice response solution is critical.

Why are customers calling? What assistance do they need? How can a voice-enabled automated phone system be designed to perform necessary tasks efficiently enough to prevent the customer from abandoning the call out of frustration? Carriers and vendors must build systems with these questions in mind.

If they're wise, "They're not going to implement a technology just because it's cool," says Align's Halliwell, a warning both Ryan and Empirix's David echo. "The key to this is setting it up from the customers' point of view," Halliwell adds.

"Customers just want to get things done," David remarks. Half of them actually prefer a fast, automated service to human interaction, he claims. Testing users' acceptance of the technology and constantly monitoring a live system are the last, essential steps to ensuring successful deployment, David continues.

As insurance companies gain confidence in speech technology, so does the public, Datamonitor's Ryan notes. "Customers are becoming more comfortable with voice deployments. Customers prefer using ever-improving voice systems that reduce wait times and mirror online offerings," he says. "This should be the goal of any voice system."

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