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April - 2009 - issue > Technology
How-to-beat-Recession-Blues?-A-Holistic-Approach-for-Automation-Using--Latest-Speech-Recognition-Technology
C Mohan Ram
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Prologue

You open any newspaper, TV Channel, or any other media publication. Phenomena like ’recession’ and ‘job cuts’ are covered at length combined with ghastly stories of ‘suicides’, which give blues to a lot of people. We also read about professionals reaching to ‘counselors’ to ease tension and stress.

There is no longer any dispute that the world is going into a recession. The only question is how long and how deep: 1970s-style or 1930s? But, just because business is bad it doesn’t mean it stops completely. A lot of ‘knee-jerk’ and over-reactions are seen in the past months. It seems that there is a 40 year cycle for the occurrence of recession, historically.
Just as plants renew themselves in a frosty winter, the economy often does a renewal during a prolonged contraction – some times, as proven in the past, it is an opportunity to innovate and try out new things. That’s the school of thought I belong to.

During the 1930s, new industries such as consumer electronics and plastics were created. In the turbulent mid-1970s, the personal computer industry was born, as companies such as Microsoft and Apple were founded.

The economy didn’t look much good then either, with soaring oil prices, rampant inflation, and tumbling stock markets. That didn’t stop a young Bill Gates or Steve Jobs from setting up new businesses. Just as we came out with flying colors in 1930s or ‘70s, I am confident that we would also come out of 2009-10 blues. No doubt there are now plenty of young entrepreneurs like me, with bright ideas and loads of determination and ready to build the corporate giants of the 2020s and 2030s (I am in the process of making one for 2020). It is just a view point worth considering.

The media has stopped projecting negative view after realizing that it has hit them hard in terms of corporates cutting expenses on advertisement, taken aback by the heavy propaganda on recession. Still, Governments across the globe are still talking about ‘bail out’, while some optimists like me share a different perception. Let us stop being pessimistic about future.

I wish to register my optimistic views and perceptions here in this article. I think the views of experts with respect to recession can be seen in two divergent views – one school convincing people that recession is ‘bad’ and the other viewing this as an ‘opportunity’ as seen by Bill and Steve in the 1970s. I belong to the latter school of thought and see an opportunity in this recession blues. I am a specialist in ‘Signal Processing’ and learnt to interpret and predict what signals convey. The thoughts I share with you here are spurred by my education at IIT-Roorkee, combined with lot of information gathered through research, as well as my personal experience gained in the India and Middle Eastern markets during the past 6 months.

Opportunities Aplenty

My firm belief is that, it is not about ‘cutting costs’, which is short-sighted, but ‘controlling costs’, which would have a long term effects in bringing operational efficiency, as well as productivity improvements and can lead to effectiveness even at the later stage when the enterprise comes out of the recession blues.
Let us see here an approach to achieving this using the lesser known, but effective technology called Automated Speech Recognition (ASR).

I would think of the aspects of looking deep into yourself and your organization for innovative improvements:
Customer Oriented Innovation: Areas where your firm had a lead over the competition but was never effectively marketed.

Product Innovation: Possibly ignored new products or incremental innovation – the small improvements in your products that are not only easier to come by but are also easier to sell.
Process Innovation: The bread and butter of corporate innovation – identify the places for improving the processes that allow your organization or the client companies to run smoothly, legally, and more profitably.

Strategic Innovation: Creating fundamental changes in how your company operates, an area that requires vision and determination.
ASR technology, in my opinion, is the only tool that cuts across all the above 4 innovations. Let us see, how it does it, with a crisp view in all 4 dimensions with some examples.

Customer Orientated Innovation

Normally a lot of enterprises spend huge amounts of money on call centers, and those who understand CRM well know that people normally prefer talking to human beings. But, is it possible to make half-a-billion people serve other half-billion? Impossible, isn’t it. Hence, automation is a must. A lot of technologies like DTMF based IVR, which takes digits as inputs and deliver automated responses exist in many enterprises that we interact with on daily basis. But, the moment you ask a person to press a number, they know that it is a computer that is answering or controlling the call. Hence, their preference to speak to a person makes them ‘press 9’ and wait for the operator or agent to attend to him or her. ASR is more ‘human like’ as you can speak while the system understands like a human being and conducts a dialogue to provide a service or enable a transaction.

Several applications like a ‘locator’ where the nearest store or ATM can be automatically located by Speech compared to DTMF. Hence, the percentage of services that can be automated but are normally answered by agents is higher, compared to the DTMF (‘press 1 or press 2’) technology.

Also, in the earlier days there were less mobile phones compared to the landline connections, where the receiver is separate from the keypad. But, with the number of mobiles overtaking the landline connections, ‘press 1 or press 2’ technology has become very irritating (you need to take the instrument from your ear every time and press a number and then put it back only to take it again to press another number). Speech recognition removes this tedious irritant. India added 15 million mobile connections in January 2009. So, it is time customer convenience is kept in mind and companies adopt a technology to automate and provide the convenience of using ASR. This innovation in this area is used by many enterprises today.

In one of the surveys we did for a telco customer after implementing ASR in a remote area like Ajmer, we found that more than 51 percent thought it was a real human answering their calls. They did not know the difference between ‘human’ and ‘human-like’ service! It has been documented that the costs of ASR based calls can be a fifth or even lower than the human agent calls. That customer of ours continues to save more than rupees one crore per month – just purely on agent costs (outsourced call center).

Also, innovative thinking on ensuring that the customer reaches you by pro-actively reaching out is another area that can possibly lead to ‘customer delight’. We have documented proof of more than 30 percent cost savings and productivity improvement in an enterprise that uses ASR compared to a similar enterprise that does not use ASR. A minimum of 30 percent cost savings in customer care is achieved without any change to the process and this can go up, if we innovate to improve the customer handling process.

Product Innovation

Feedback and suggestions from users is important. Normally, having this done using manual techniques through an agency is more of inference rather than actual feedback. Manually conducted market research, feedback, and CSAT are expensive and time consuming, as only a representative sampling is done and inference is drawn. But, with ASR you can contact many of your consumers and give a course or talk on how to use the product, proactively educating them, as a welcome call. The more the people are aware of your products and special features, the better is the utilization in addition to a drastic reduction in enquiries in the customer care.

Moreover, you get a lot of feedback and ideas on areas that need improvements, which can lead to increased sales as well as acceptance of the product. You can do the surveys as often as you want, as it costs little and takes very less time compared to manual methods. An enterprise that makes the welcome call using ASR (“Welcome Mr. Kumar to the family of / growing family of xxxx company. Can I explain you some features as well as DOs and DONTs for the product?”) to explain product features and does a CSAT or feedback every quarter has documented an increase of about 14 percent in sales and a 35 percent reduction in calls to customer care (within the first month of buy), leading to huge savings as well as earning the reputation of being a ‘caring’ company compared to other companies offering similar products. Customers’ loyalty to the product and the brand is very high, thanks to the cost-effective ASR technology. The company now reaches 100 percent of their customer base for CSAT at the same cost of what they used to spend for using a MR firm for a sample of 1000 per quarter.

Process Innovation
This depends on the business and segment that an enterprise is in. But, a lot of companies have contact centers with a certain capacity (in-sourced or outsourced). Normally, this is planned based on peak load, which is typically 2-3 hours each in the morning and again in the evening. By automating the contact center with ASR, the company can intelligently do a load balance – to make calls even across a shift, with a combination of outbound and inbound processes. During peak time, you offer only critical calls to agents and record the rest as ‘complaints’ with a token number and later use an outbound process – when agents are free to handle these less critical complaints or enquiries.

By handling this way, even agents can spend more time in making ‘telesales’ calls to get more business for the company.

This is just a ‘tip of the iceberg’. There can be very many process innovations that are possible across multiple functions like HR, admin, and vendor management. For example, the current process of recruitment can be improved by 50-55 percent by bringing in efficiency through the use of ASR.

The same way, many innovative products automated using ASR as front-end and integrated with ERP like SAP or Oracle are available as off-shelf implementable products covering lots of processes that help save time, effort, and money. We have demonstrated that a recruitment cycle can be compressed from 13 weeks to less than 7 weeks (from ad to offer letter). ROI on an investment of over $1 million in less than 12 months is possible with this technology.

Strategic Innovation

Based on the nature of business, the strategies to counter competition and make sure that the existing customer sticks with you are keys for innovative approach. The above three innovations surely bring ‘operational efficiency’ and ‘productivity improvement’ across enterprises, besides making sure of customers’ delight, if strategized well, with buy from all people concerned. Recognize the fact that everyone has ideas about your company and its business and many of those ideas are also well thought out ones. Some of those ideas are worth good money. Focus on the ideas that are useful and not just fanciful and are more practicable rather than speculative. Choose to work with a partner who is willing to share risks and rewards with you. Cost based / and vendor based approach does not always work. Have a clear understanding with a partner who is willing to work with you in all areas including back-office as well as customer oriented processes, using ASR technology. Reward them for increasing sales and share the savings. Innovate Innovate Innovate continuously.

Epilogue

ASR is not only for contact center and customer-oriented services. It can be used to innovate and improve productivity, service levels as well as ‘operational efficiency’ to help enterprises achgieve ‘doing more with less’.

So, while the economic news over the next few months is likely to be gloomy, it is worth remembering the saying “beneath the hard frost the first buds of the next spring are germinating”. Spotting them is the tricky part, I hope the ideas I have given will give a good start to your search for solutions to beat recession blues. But catch them early enough, and you will save money without compromising on quality and make a fortune; as amazing as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs have made!!

The author is Managing Director, Lattice Bridge Infotech. He can be reached at mrc@lbinfotech.com

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