It's been a long road from Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone in 1876 to today's voice recognition phone systems that make statements like: "If you want to discuss your bill, say one."

Some consider the telephone to be man's greatest communication development. Other's say it's the Internet. And now, with voice recognition, there is a hybrid.

Although many businesses may have been cutting back on technology spending over the last few years, particularly on telecommunications-related equipment, investing in speech recognition technology is growing.

A lot of telecommunications equipment is becoming out of date, and rather than opting to spend money on a new touchtone system that allows you to press a number on your dialing pad to get the service you want, many companies are upgrading to speech recognition systems. The systems are more reliable, cut customer service costs significantly, and now include "natural speech" capabilities that make them more user friendly.

Here are some examples of how large corporations are voice recognition technology: Amtrak for train schedule information, Sears for customer service, UPS for package tracking, and Charles Schwab for trades or transferring funds.

Voice recognition can reduce the number and length of calls that go to a live agent, which saves money. Schwab, for example, cut calls to its agents by providing more than 15,000 items via advanced voice recognition.

The savings, combined with a drop in the price of the technology, has prompted smaller companies to begin considering a switch to voice recognition systems, particularly those with "natural speech" capabilities.

The newer voice applications provide an intuitive interaction with users. Customers are always looking for more convenience,and speaking to a system is more natural than pushing numbers.

If you're thinking of making the switch, consider systems that provide:

Easy human-like communication. Prompts should ask the right questions. Callers shouldn't be confused or offended (for example, the system shouldn't simply say: "invalid entry"). Instead, ask the caller to repeat the entry or state it a different way. And when a user hesitates to reply, the system should respond with help messages, clues and samples.

Recognition of several words and phrases that basically have the same meaning. For example, the system could recognize "transfer me to billing, switch me to billing, or connect me with billing" as meaning the same thing.

Hybrid functions. In other words, has touch tone capabilities for those customers who are more comfortable with that kind of system.

To get the most benefit when you make the switch, test the system first with employees, then with a small group of customers. Make any necessary refinements before rolling it out to the full customer base. Once in place, you can market the new system emphasizing: Speed and ease along with the ability to do anything that could be done through the touch tone system.

Nothing's perfect: Despite the advantages, voice-recognition technology still has its drawbacks. Background noise can cause problems, the voices can sound mechanical and it is best suited for short transactions. But the savings and convenience may override these flaws.

Compare

Contrast

Touch Tone

Voice-Recognition

Complicated menu navigation and frequent change of menus can confuse users. Users directly access a menu item, making the system friendlier and reducing calls to a live representative.
Proprietary hardware and software that is costly to set up and maintain. Based on open technologies and platforms reducing set-up and maintenance costs.
Touchtone pads can be cumbersome and prone to error when long numbers or text input is required. Complicated text messages can be dictated in less time and jargon can be used, if necessary, when talking to the system.

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