Thursday, December 16, 2004

Self Service: It’s Personal

How personalized are your customer service experiences? Been to a large department store lately? Did they know you? Have you called your local utility lately? Did they know you? How about the local gas station? Grocery store?

If your experiences are like mine, the only place where customer service appears to have any modicum of personalization is the web. When I log on to the web to pay bills, my bank’s site displays my personal data and offers me customer service options tailored to me. My broker’s web site displays trading options that are tailored to me. Yahoo goes so far as to allow me to decide the categories of content of my home page and personally tailor each of the categories to suit my interests.

Yet if I decide to use a phone instead of a browser to contact any of these companies, that personal touch that I enjoy on the web is gone. At best, my personal choices on the phone consist of entering some digits to identify myself and to indicate the nature of my call. Today, the loss of personalization that occurs just because I decide to use a telephone instead of a browser is not acceptable and not necessary.

Voice eXtensible Markup Language or vXML is a programming language that allows Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR) systems to run as extensions of the web server rather than extensions of the telephone systems. With vXML, all of the services that can be accessed through a browser can also be accessed through a standard telephone. In essence, vXML is essentially a “phone interface” or “touchtone browser” for the web site.

Using vXML, it is possible to allow customer to determine the choices they hear when they call in. Instead of the “one size fits all” model used on most IVR systems, vXML can allow customers to customize the voice experience through the preferences they select on the web site. Want option 1 to always be account balance, not a problem. Want option 2 to always be “transfer money”, not a problem. vXML allows customers to tailor the experience to suit their habits and needs.

Combining vXML with automatic speech recognition (ASR) and text-to-speech (TTS) technology produces a supercharged self service opportunity. While vXML creates a “touchtone” browser, adding ASR and TTS produces a true “voice browser”. With ASR and TTS, it is possible to ask the web server for the information you want and have it read back the information. Questions can be posed in a conversational way rather than wading through a series of prompts.

When it comes to personalized self service, ASR & TTS provide the ultimate opportunity for personalization. Imagine programming your own commands and your own welcome message. How about your welcome message containing content that varies depending upon certain variables you choose. Call your broker and have your greeting reflect current market conditions. Call your bank and be advised if any account balance has dropped below some configurable level.

Self service today can be as highly personalized as the web. In fact, the telephone has the potential to be a better browser than the traditional web browser. Best of all, as the vXML is more widely deployed, the only real decision regarding access to web-based information will be which device is more readily available.