When the Internet bubble was still full of hot air, the importance of having a "Web strategy" was clearly overstated. Companies today are less likely to sell cat litter or groceries over the Internet, but their Web sites are nevertheless an important part of an overall strategy of providing information and services to their customers.
The telephone is another major way in which customers connect with companies and in which employees interact with each other, but the idea of having a "telephone strategy" is largely foreign to most companies, according to Bill Meisel, president of TMA Associates and publisher/editor of Speech Recognition Update newsletter. The reason, he says, lies largely in the telephone's history.
Telephone calls have historically been expensive, and handling them with agents has added to the expense. Automation with touch-tone has its limitations, and often appears designed to discourage calls.
The cost of handling phone calls has already dropped substantially and will continue to do so, Meisel claims. The cost of a toll-free call to a company has declined dramatically. Many functions that required agents can now be accomplished with speech recognition technology at a modest per-call cost. The cost-per-call of agents is dropping by the resulting automation of repetitive functions before transfer to an agent.
An effective speech strategy requires regarding each phone call as an opportunity rather than a cost, Meisel says. No one creates a Web site with the idea of driving the customer from the Web site as quickly as possible, but that is the mindset used in making many decisions about telephone interactions.
An effective telephone strategy takes into account the accelerating trend toward making telephone contacts a part of a company's marketing and customer satisfaction initiatives. Some companies are already doing so, consolidating as many as 4,000 toll-free numbers into one branded number. Agents are able to spend more time on complex interactions and pleasing the customer.
The change is also affecting internal telecommunications, Meisel notes. Speech interfaces can make connecting with other staff much more efficient and can make a standard wireless phone a PDA -- giving staff access to personal and corporate databases, as well as more flexible access to voice and email messages. A number of companies are eliminating laptops for their field service operations in favor of centralized speech recognition.
The process of creating a telephone strategy is a key focus of a conference that Meisel is holding in Miami in February, the sixth annual Telephony Voice User Interface Conference (TVUI 2004). In addition to a one-day workshop on Creating a Telephone Speech Strategy, the conference sessions go into depth on aspects of the process. Companies using the technology are presenting case studies, platform providers are presenting alternatives, and experts are discussing the creation of effective applications.