Category: IVR & Self-Service
West Corporation

Posted on April 22, 2015 by West Corporation 

Urgent Communication? Utility Customers Tell All

Our customer service communication preferences often come down to a trade-off between urgency and complexity of what we, as users, are trying to accomplish.

  • Have a simple message that doesn’t really demand a prompt response? Facebook might do the trick.
  • Less urgent, but more complicated? Email should do.
  • Need something immediate? Call.

Utilities have a particularly urgent mission to keep the power on and, thus, unique imperatives for communication with their customers. Users don’t just want power; their lives actually depend upon it. Simplicity is the name of the game.

  • Power goes out? Call.
  • Want an update to know when it will be up and running? Proactively call.
  • Notified with a warning that it might be shut off? Call.

I’m looking forward to gathering with our nation’s utility leaders at the CS Week Conference in Charlotte, NC, April 28-May 1, to discuss the new frontier in technology, solutions and practices that improve utility customer service.

In this market, automated solutions like IVR aren’t just a “nice to have;” they are absolutely critical channels. When approached intelligently, inbound and proactive outbound solutions have the power to transform urgent utility conversations into straightforward, reassuring customer experiences.

West recently brought dynamic self-service to light for one of the top U.S. utilities. The company, serving well over a million customers, needed to upgrade its front end IVR applications to effectively handle time-sensitive customer communication around emergencies, outage updates and payments. By gathering requirements and conducting thorough assessments on the front end of the project, West significantly sped up the IVR development process. From customer journey mapping, human factors analysis and roundtables, to WOZ testing, the design was complete in a matter of weeks.

Layered with predictive intent modeling and strategic natural language, the conversational IVR offers a consistent, customized user experience, no matter the customer’s intent. The results have shown that average cost per call decreases, customer satisfaction rates increase, and context awareness improves containment rates – in this case, by 12 percent and counting.

This is just one case of smart, innovative, carefully executed solutions making a substantial difference in the utility customer experience. West has been supporting utility customers for 20+ years, and we always look forward to attending workshops and conversing with utility professionals at CS Week – the premier utility customer service conference for managers and executives at investor-owned utilities, cooperatives, municipalities and government entities.

If you’ll be in Charlotte next week, please come find me and my colleagues at Booth #236, and reach out if you’d like to arrange a meeting.

Whether you’ll be there in person or just in spirit, join our conversation on social media #PowerConnected.

West Corporation

Posted on April 14, 2015 by West Corporation 

Are you prepared for multi-channel mayhem?

Take it from ADT: There’s no place like your contact center. There’s no place like your contact center. There’s no place like your contact center.

Customer care used to be housed in a physical facility, but a relatively recent whirlwind of the latest-and-greatest modes of communication has made the bricks-and-mortar contact center far less commonplace. It’s the perfect storm for multi-channel mayhem…

Customers don’t just dial in for customer service; they use text messaging, mobile apps, voice and Web platforms at once. From their fitness trackers to Twitter to live chat, users expect the brands to know them, understand them, preempt their challenges and still protect their privacy. Thus, brands are challenged to not only manage communication across multiple platforms, but also create context among them.

Take air travel, for example: You get an SMS alert that your flight from Tucson back home to Topeka is delayed. You reply, “What can I do?” and get no response. As you wait in the long line for a rep, you ring up the toll-free customer service line. You spend two minutes navigating the IVR to change flights, and then another 10 minutes explaining the same mess to the agent. Two hours later, still waiting for your rebooking confirmation, you get an email asking you to fill out a post-flight survey. Each channel is clearly disparate and, needless to say, you’ll think twice about your choice of airline next time.

We’re definitely not in contact center Kansas anymore. According to Gartner, “customer experience innovation remains the secret to lasting brand loyalty.”

Consumers’ need for easy, fast and personal self-service is tough to satisfy without ongoing strategic consideration for and investment in the customer experience. Brands must get to know their users, and break down internal silos to narrow the gap between the experience they’re having and the one they expect.

Cloud-based solutions make remote agent environments feasible; channel integration easier; predictive intent possible; and continuous improvements more accessible and affordable. Predictive analytics, user-experience design and WOZ (fittingly, “Wizard of Oz”) testing can make all the difference.

Some brands are doing a great job streamlining data and interaction to enhance the customer experience – and realizing substantial ROI, as a result. One such company is ADT, a leader home security and automation products for 6.4 million U.S. households.

Join SVP Dan Gordon at a webcast with ADT’s Chris Toon on Tuesday, April 21st at 12pmCDT, presented by Execs in the Know. We’ll discuss what West’s communication solutions have done for ADT’s customer experience; and share tips to get you started.

If you only had the secret to the ultimate connected customer experience, right? Here’s one thing that’s even easier than clicking your heels together three times: Click here to register for next Tuesday’s webcast or have the recording sent straight to your inbox.

West Corporation

Posted on March 30, 2015 by West Corporation 

Keep Customers Out of the Dark

Did you know that West supports power outage communications for more than 70 percent of homes in the U.S.? As lifelong customers and 25-year industry partners, we know the utility industry like the back of our hands, and are proud to team up with the country’s leading enterprises to enhance the user experience.

For a long time, North American utility companies have naturally had monopolies in their respective markets; by no fault of their own, electricity, water and gas are seen as “necessary evils,” and most communities have single providers. Thus, while customer service and communication has grown exponentially more customer-centric in many markets, utility companies haven’t commanded the same attention to the “customer journey” as commercial players… until recently. Utilities are becoming deregulated in some states, increasing opportunity for “competition.” Meanwhile, regulators are strong-arming better customer service to mediate complaints. Plus, frankly, companies are recognizing the importance of high customer satisfaction.

The long and short of it? Although utility providers don’t necessarily have to “sell” customers on their services, they are adopting more proactive strategies to engage users.

That’s where West comes in: Our utility experts partner up with companies to seamlessly orchestrate multiple channels, analyze customer journeys and manage preferences, and develop and administer communication campaigns. Experience in this industry and others uniquely positions West to help companies stay ahead of the curve to reduce customer friction and increase organizational productivity with sophisticated, cloud-based solutions.

Self-service options and outbound notifications range from emergency alerts, to payment reminders and secure transactions, to two-way text messaging and customer satisfaction surveys. If you call in to report an outage, preference management tools enable utility companies to confirm repairs and automatically let you know with a call, text or other choice means when they’ve done so. Our proprietary mutual assistance routing system even redirects calls to qualified live agents in other geographic areas during critical outages.

Because a big part of our mission is to help keep customers out of the dark even when they’re in the dark, taking part in the annual Edison Electric Institute and American Gas Association (EEI/AGA) Customer Service Conference & Exposition has us all fired up! The event draws utility professionals, from all points along the customer journey, to tackle likeminded objectives.

This year, EEI/AGA will be held at the Omni Shoreham in Washington D.C., from April 6-9. We’ll be there at Booth #501, and joining our clients in sessions about top-of-mind concerns like cyber-safety, secure payments and collections, and pulling Web chat and social media into a contemporary contact center.

West’s utility and cloud-based communication experts look forward to meeting folks who interact with customers every day – on calls, reading meters, collecting and processing payments, operating offices, analyzing business performance, and more. Please visit us at Booth #501!

Reach out to schedule a meeting, and join @WestInteractive in conversation on Twitter and LinkedIn. #PowerConnected

West Corporation

Posted on March 19, 2015 by West Corporation 

Xchanging Customer Journey Insights

Did you catch the CRMXchange Virtual Conference this week? Nine sessions were jam-packed with insightful ways to put your customers first (in the good times and the bad) and ultimately shape a better experience.

Even if you missed Dan Gordon’s presentation on Building the Customer Experience Blueprint or the rapid-fire panel discussion that concluded the conference, we won’t leave you hanging. You can check out the recording, and here are 5 quick takeaways for a better multi-channel customer experience:

  • Create connectivity and context: Cut down on the work (and rework) you make customers do. How? Limit transfers between channels and repetition of information. The resources it takes on the front-end are well worth it in customer loyalty.
  • Find balance in BI: Data is essential understanding what communication channels customers prefer and why. The more you know, the better you can anticipate needs and improve the customer journey. Look at the data that resides within your business already. You may not need more metrics, so much as alternative ways of using it. Determine correlations between data-points to make the most of what your customers are telling you.
  • Implement incrementally: A multi-channel customer experience is only successful if you tackle every channel well. Don’t try to take them all on at once, nor in the same ways. Map the ideal customer journey and identify priorities. Start small. Do things right the first time, and build upon them.
  • Turn tension into retention: It costs more to acquire a new customer than to keep the ones you have happy. By thinking from the outside-in, you can explore points of tension to fix them before they put a customer relationship at risk. Be proactive. Be consistent. Continuously improve. Exceed expectations. Focus on the business process.
  • Let the Web lead the way: People want to self-serve, but they are easily overwhelmed by too many options. Conveniently, most look online before taking action, so clear verbiage on your home page may be all it takes to guide users to the right place(s) for them. Make sure that your online experience is seamlessly integrated with your other channels.
West Corporation

Posted on February 24, 2015 by West Corporation 

Catch the next wave in self-service IVR

Voice technology is as relevant as ever in customer service space. But it’s not standing still; it’s evolving with consumers. (In fact, there’s a good chance you’re reading this post on a smartphone as we speak, which is proof that we aren’t just using “voice” in the same way we always have.)

All of us expect our phones to keep up, helping us to take care of something at the moment it crosses our minds; smart, easy and uniquely ours. Why wouldn’t we want the same from our interactive voice response technology?

We would. We do. And, at West, we’re helping brands strategically get ahead of the game with customer communications in the next wave of IVR.

Last week in Miami, I was fortunate to take part in the Execs In The Know: Customer Response Summit, attended by roughly 100 executives charged with their organizations’ customer care. In conjunction with insightful presentations from renowned brands like Amazon, GM and Verizon, West was asked to share an innovative idea in a session about the future of the customer experience.

I presented our fresh concept of a multi-modal IVR that combines traditional IVR services with a visual interface to help users self-serve in real-time. Consumers can interact with voice, Web and SMS channels simultaneously to complete any number of tasks – receive images, type responses, set preferences, verify transactions, make payments, you name it – without having to transfer, disconnect or speak to a live agent. Check out this quick video demo.

West’s multi-modal IVR solution will create a more effective, seamless, step-by-step self-service experience for customers, and reduce costly and potentially repetitive agent calls. It’s a win-win.

Like we say in the video, it’s time to see what IVR can do.

The response from summit attendees was phenomenal. Our multi-modal IVR solution generated interest, comments and questions from Execs In The Know, and the conversation is just beginning… We hope you’ll also weigh in on this next wave of IVR and explore what it can to transform the customer’s journey with your brand.

West Corporation

Posted on February 13, 2015 by West Corporation 

Find Ways to Improve Multi-channel Customer Service

Just like no two snowflakes are the same, each of your customers is unique. All have different likes and dislikes, favorite television shows and favorite foods – and they certainly have individual preferences when it comes to communication. So why would you connect with them all the same way?

Multi-channel customer service is increasingly important. Research from Econsultancy shows that 83 percent of online shoppers need assistance to complete a transaction. In what form? Not every instance is the same: 61 percent of people want to talk with customer service on the phone, 60 percent expect to be able to use email, and 51 percent simply look to an online FAQ page for a solution. Even within a channel, people have distinct expectations – from the promptness of a response, to type of content, time of day and tone of voice.

Creating an exceptional customer experience isn’t as easy as catching a snowflake, but identifying preferences, analyzing data and developing strategies for appropriate responsive and proactive communication in multiple channels are good steps.

Enhancing the Customer Experience with Interactive Voice Technology

Consumers like to be heard. (Literally.) Voice services are still the most popular mode of communications. In fact, roughly 92 percent of annual customer service interactions are phone-based.

Interactive voice response (IVR) is an efficient way for brands to help customers who prefer using the phone. An IVR supports automated self-service and cuts down on the need for time-consuming conversation with a live agent, which can be both inconvenient for the customer and costly for the company.

Typically, consumers perceive representatives who are unable to immediately improve a situation to be incapable; in reality, this disconnect is usually because they lack technologies that enable a most efficient response. A skill-based routing system can help grade agents’ skills in different areas of business so customers get support from the most fitting agent every time they call.

To proactively improve the customer experience with voice services, it is important to integrate phone-based service with other channels so there is a full picture of the customer’s information and the channels he/she has already explored. This saves time and prevents often frustrating repetition of information – thus, enhancing customer service efficacy. For some, multi-modal IVR solutions make it possible to guide customers step-by-step through different self-service functions, while they’re still on the line.

Improving the Customer Experience with SMS/Text

Customer expectations for quick and convenient service rise with their dependence on mobile devices. Text messages/SMS, particularly proactive SMS notifications, are an appealing form of communication because they reach customers anytime, on devices they already have handy.

SMS engagement rates are six to eight times higher than those of email messages, and the average click-through rate for SMS Web-links is 19 percent, compared to 4.2 percent for email.

Still, mobile internet users tend to be fickle; they expect quick loading times for websites and abandonment rates are high. Case in point: 40 percent of users will leave a mobile site if it takes more than three seconds to load, and 47 percent expect the page to load within just two seconds. A one-second delay in loading is shown to decrease customer satisfaction by around 16 percent.

Furthermore, customers are concerned about receiving inconvenient SMS alerts. In fact, more Americans report having received unsolicited SMS than eaten breakfast (68 percent versus 60 percent). Typically, SMS should be used between 11am and 9pm, so not to disturb early-to-bed or late-to-rise consumers, but this rule of thumb isn’t enough; to meet customer expectations and reduce opt-out rates, start with user data. Like with any medium, monitor peak mobile usage times among your target audience to identify when messages will be most effective and be sure to comply with regulations.

Elevating the Customer Experience through Email and Social Channels

Your well-rounded customer experience may also include email and social media interactions.

Customer Service Via Email

With 3.9 billion active email accounts at the end of 2013, and another billion expected by 2017, it’s no surprise that 60 percent of consumers want to be able to engage via email.

It’s imperative to be realistic about response time so customers feel confident that you’re taking care of them. Most consumers expect a correct answer via email within 24 hours, and the average customer service response time is around 17 hours. If possible, immediately acknowledge customer inquiries with a confirmation page or an auto-response email, telling them when to expect an individualized response.

Email messages should be easy to understand, well-written and brand-aligned. The same goes for customer service responses through social media, which users want to be prompt and effective.

Ninety-nine percent of brands are present on Twitter, where, within the hour, 72 percent of customers expect a response to complaints and 42 percent expect answers to questions. However, only 10 percent of companies on Twitter satisfy these expectations; the average response-time is closer to five hours.

Creating a dedicated customer service handle has been shown to improve response time by 43 percent, double the total rate of response, de-clutter brands’ main pages and encourage viral marketing.

By listening intently to communication preferences, your brand can go above and beyond to improve the customer experience across multiple channels.

West Corporation

Posted on October 28, 2014 by West Corporation 

Exploring The Care Coordinator’s Dilemma

Nurse care coordinators are a special breed, with many choosing the profession out of the desire for greater patient intimacy and the chance to spend more time educating and coaching patients toward a path of a healthier, happier life. In the new era of accountable care, where patients will take greater ownership of their health, the kind of patient advocacy that care coordinators bring to the table is just what the doctor ordered.

But in the wake of accountable care, the care coordinator’s role has become less proactive patient coach and more reactive administrator. Increases in nurse-to-patient ratios, more panels of chronically ill patients, and steady cost pressures are giving many care coordinators pause as they slide down the ladder and operate at ever-lower rungs of their license.

The typical care coordinator’s day is consumed with responding to alerts they’ve set up to manage their most critical patients and there’s only time for broad-brush education, like the “watch your diet” variety. If accountable care is truly about getting patients to take greater ownership, the dosage of intimacy and advocacy should be increased, not decreased.

So how can we help solve the care coordinator’s dilemma?

This is the question the Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), in partnership with West Corporation and West Health, is solving today.  On the heels of its CMS Innovation Award, VUMC embarked on an innovative, technology-driven project with West with three goals:

  1. Increase care coordination efficiency
  2. Raise the number of patients receiving services
  3. Enable care coordinators to spend more valuable time with patients

The approach? Technology-enabled care applications that offload care coordinators with automated interactions that empower and activate patients, as demonstrated in this video. Sure, communication like automated phone calls to patients to remind them of their appointments, or two-way SMS messages to collect blood pressure and other readings, may seem simple and obvious at first blush. But it is what’s under the covers that VUMC and West believe could represent the future of care coordination in particular, and population health management in general.

Envisioned is a sophisticated coordinated care management protocol engine that combines evidence-based medical guidelines with automated workflows and patient outreach. Think of it as a “clinical brain” with multi-modal communication capabilities.  The whole process will not only free care coordinators and their counterparts from the monotony of administrative, low-value tasks, but smarter, protocol driven patient communication will reduce practice variation and improve the quality of care and lower the cost of delivering care overall.

If you are a provider, how are you solving the care coordinator’s dilemma?

West Corporation

Posted on August 26, 2014 by West Corporation 

How Your Devices Learn to Talk to You

We may still be a few dozen years away from everyone having their own personal robot, but in a lot of ways, the future has arrived – especially in the realms of automatic speech recognition (ASR) and interactive voice response (IVR). After all, where would we be today without having Siri tell us whether or not it’s raining outside? You were probably caught in the rain without an umbrella, at the very least.

Automatic Speech Recognition Is a Process

Automatic speech recognition is any sort of technology that allows a computer to convert spoken language into text in real time. While the technology has been in government and military research since the 1950s, it’s only been used by the general public since the 1980s, when it was introduced as a way to help people with musculoskeletal disabilities.

To use ASR technology, you start by speaking into your device’s microphone. Your device then creates a wave form from the sound and background noise is filtered out while volume is normalized to a constant level. Then, the filtered wave form is broken down into individual phonemes (the sounds used to build words that are the most basic units of language, like the hard “k” sound in the word “kit”). Based on the first phoneme of a word, the computer uses a combination of statistical probability (usually the hidden Markov model) and context to narrow down options and figure out which word was spoken.

Talk to Me

Some ASR systems are so advanced that they can engage in “conversations” with you, a technology called natural language programming (NLP). NLP works through the process of machine learning and statistical inference, in which software searches through a programmed body of real-world examples to recognize and respond to speech. And some other methods of speech recognition search a hard-coded vocabulary.

NLP works best in fairly simple “conversations” that rely mostly on yes or no answers, or have few major possible answers. Instead of searching its entire vocabulary for each word in a question and processing them separately, NLP systems react to certain “tagged” words and phrases to respond appropriately – things like “weather forecast” or “pay my bill.”

Improving the Conversations

Over time, voice recognition software gets better by “learning” from each experience. In fact, speech recognition has been the main focus of machine learning research over the last few decades. ASR systems can either be tuned by humans, or they can engage in a process called active learning.

In tuning, programmers can review logs to identify and fix common problems. With linguists’ help, programmers can add words, pronunciations and grammatical structures that the system is failing to understand. Software is hand-coded with a variety of real-world examples for the software to search and draw from.

Active learning, meanwhile, is still currently limited in its capabilities; think about how often your phone autocorrects “top” to “too,” and you’ll have an idea. Data is stored from past interactions as the program gets to know the words and combinations of words that you most often use. Another example of active learning in speech recognition software is in homes or medical transcription when the software calibrates itself to the voice of its user, taking in certain words and phrases and then reacting with programmed examples to allow the program to work more easily with accents, speech impediments, and more.

While ASR technology is fascinating and fun to experiment with, it currently faces a few limitations. While average accuracy is 96 percent, this is usually accompanied by the caveat “in ideal conditions,” meaning with little background noise, no one else speaking nearby, distinct speech and more. Too much background noise, loud ambient noise, and/or low-quality input hardware can muddle the wave forms and lead to inaccurate output.

Computers and software also have problems distinguishing overlapping speech (two voices speaking at the same time), and the extensive statistical and contextual analysis from these programs often requires a large amount of processing power, taxing a computer’s processors and batteries. Finally, the always-tricky homonyms (words that have the same spelling but different meanings) are difficult for computers to process correctly, even as the ability of ASR programs to distinguish between words based on context improves.

As technology continues to progress, the future of speech recognition software looks to focus on making translation services more accurate and further developing computers’ ability to understand the words they’re taking in.

From Luke Skywalker communicating with R2D2 and C3PO to today’s helpful yet sometimes snarky Siri, ASR has evolved to have more functionality than ever, and as the software is tuned and perfected, the scope of artificial intelligence will only continue to grow. And we will no longer have to worry about being caught in the rain.

Inforgraphic to Explain ASR

West Corporation

Posted on July 22, 2014 by West Corporation 

Talk to Me Goose

1986 was the year the cinematic classic “Top Gun” came out on the big screen. It’s also happens to be the year West Corporation was founded. Even though it was a fascinating time for technology, not many people could imagine all the ways technology shapes how we now move through our day and our world.

Did you know there’s now even a text abbreviation for that famous utterance by Maverick in Top Gun? TTMG (Talk to me goose) is texting shorthand for asking your friend to stop texting complex ideas and pick up the phone for a conversation.

Fast-forward 28 years and we as consumers have an amazing amount of devices, channels and technologies all competing for our time and attention. For your company to be “the best of the best” finding ways to streamline and simultaneously enhance how you interact with your customers is paramount. Natural language (NL) as a part of a well-designed interactive voice response (IVR) system fits perfectly into that idea. NL-enabled IVR allows callers to simply speak their response to an automated question. Without having to fit their needs into a pre-defined set of choices, callers can self-serve using automation simply and effectively.

This infographic shows how leading companies in multiple industries have successfully used natural language-enhanced IVR. Encourage your customers to “talk to you” for complex tasks, better caller experiences and more satisfied customers who are delighted on the path to self-service.

We’ll be your wingman anytime.

Natural Language & IVR for Business InfographicShare this Infographic on your site! Please include attribution to West Interactive.

Are you heading to SpeechTEK 2014 in August? I’ll be there and I would be happy to talk with you more about the value of natural language-enabled IVR. Message me on LinkedIn to set up a time to get together.

West Corporation

Posted on December 31, 2013 by West Corporation 

Don’t Lower Your Standards

Enterprises are structured in a modular way. There are functional separations between the many parts: HR, finance, IT and so on. The individual parts are hopefully related by well-defined processes and interfaces. This is a natural way to organize complexity on the human scale to make it manageable.

A similar principle applies in the structuring of technology. A large and complex system is implemented as a cluster of interacting subsystems, each one with a defined role and (hopefully) well-defined processes and interfaces. This division of labor enables different teams or even different enterprises to focus on a single, more manageable part of the whole.

Defining the processes and interfaces is hard but crucial. It takes a lot of forethought, discussion and time, but a system with poorly or vaguely defined interactions among its parts will be dysfunctional, just as an enterprise with ill-defined processes will be dysfunctional. If it works at all, it does not work efficiently.

This is where standards come in. As experience with specific functional decompositions of systems accumulates, it can be used to build up standard definitions of processes and interfaces among components. Then, as long as each team or enterprise responsible for a type of component focuses on staying compatible with the defined standards at the component boundaries, the components can be combined with confidence that the system as a whole will be effective and relatively efficient.

At West, we have been working for over a decade at implementing components that conform to standards defining Internet-based IVR components. Standards like SIP, HTTP, CCXML, VoiceXML and many others enable us to offer rapid deployment of flexible solutions to customers’ IVR needs. We can combine components of our own with components provided by our expert partners, reliably situated in a framework of standards. And, customers can be confident that their solutions are maintainable over the long haul.

So, follow the standards, and let’s work together.