Talking to machines doesn't always mean insanity

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on September 27, 2005

Almost three-quarters of the UK's population say they talk to machines regularly, according to a report from Fluency Voice Technology and Call Centre Focus Magazine, suggesting an ongoing upsurge in the number of virtual agents that are supposed to save time for both businesses and consumers.

Whether they're paying domestic utility bills, checking their bank balance, booking travel or cinema tickets, or even ordering pizzas, the conversations consumers have with virtual agents - that is, interactive voice recognition (IVR) systems - are becoming the norm as organisations throughout the UK introduce speech recognition to deal with growing numbers of customer calls.

The 'Speech Recognition Insights Report' carried out by speech recognition firm Fluency Voice Technology and Call Centre Focus Magazine found that 74% of those surveyed have had experience with speech technology. The most frequent use of the technology was found to be in banking and financial areas (54%), followed by retail and leisure (38%), utilities (35%), insurance (27%), and travel companies (24%).

Public advantages
According to the UK's general public, the main advantage of speech recognition technology is that it saves time (64%), it is easy to use (57%), and it means that they don't have to wait for a human agent to be available for relatively simple queries (50%).

Fluency estimates that, over the next few years, call centres will be routinely adopting these new virtual agents as part of their service to handle the majority of mundane tasks such as bill payments, brochure requests and ticket availability. With this expected rise in technology usage, Fluency launched its own Virtual Speech Agentsuite in the UK this month, to help call centres deploy low-cost speech applications for common call centre transactions.

Growing in SMEs
Fluency's CEO, Philip Padfield, said: "Until recently speech was only affordable to large organisations but - with improved technology, falling costs and changing consumer perceptions - speech is now being adopted by the mid- to small-tier organisation. We consequently expect to see a more mainstream acceptance of speech over the next five years"

And according to Call Centre Focus editor, Claudia Hathaway: "Customer demand for 24/7 service has driven advances in speech technology so today's automated response menus are a far cry from the frustrating exchanges customers experienced when virtual agents first emerged. As virtual conversations between customers and machines become more widespread it is good to know that the general public are becoming more accepting of the new virtual agents".

Other findings
The key findings detailed in the report include:

  • Finding out about a bank balance is the most popular use (74%), followed by giving a meter reading (56%) and locating the nearest store or cinema (52%). Also popular is making a payment such as a fine or bill (34%) and finding out about train and fight schedules (30%). Other popular uses include transferring money (22%) and booking a flight (12%).
  • The Report looked at five main sectors where virtual agents have been deployed: banking, travel, utilities, insurance, and retail. The greatest use of speech technology is currently in the banking and financial sector, with 50% of respondents using virtual agents at least once a month. With utilities companies 54% of people say they use virtual agents once every 3 months when paying quarterly bills, compared to 43% in the retail and leisure sectors. In the insurance sector, virtual agents are used once a year by 60% of respondents, compared with 56% of respondents in the travel sector.
  • One of the most interesting findings of the research was that consumers' perceptions of speech often change in favour of virtual agents following their first experience of using a speech recognition system. The increase seen here was more than four-fold.
  • The most popular voice type for the travel sector is: in its 30's; female; London Estuary English; competent; well paced; professional.
  • The most popular voice type for the retail sector is: in its 50's; female; mature; efficient; calm.
  • The most popular voice type for the utilities sector is: in its 20's; female; London Estuary English; strong; husky; independent.
  • The most popular voice type for financial services is: in its 30's; male; Irish accent; warm; smooth; authoritative.
  • When questioned about the gender of the voice that's most suitable for virtual agents, the male voice has a slight edge (52%) over female for paying bills or making transactions, while the female voice is the overwhelming choice for other types of transaction such as booking holidays or flights (68%) and buying cinema or theatre tickets (64%).

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