Computers That Talk Are Saving Companies a Bundle

By Dan Orzech

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Claire is the sort of receptionist all companies would like to have answering their phones. Unfailingly polite, she never stops for lunch, goes on vacation, or even sleeps. And with her distinctive British accent, she's saved her employer millions of dollars.

"Claire" is the voice of British Airways new voice recognition system, which lets callers get flight information without resorting to the touch tone keypad.

The system prompts users for the information they are looking for, and then provides it in a natural, human-sounding voice. Callers can use the system to check British Airways flight schedule, check departure or arrival gates, or confirm flights.

Built on software from Menlo Park, Calif.-based Nuance, Inc. the system has reduced the airline's call center costs by 95%, paying for itself within six months of deployment.

British Airways used to maintain 128 different telephone numbers to support its various call center locations. After implementing the speech recognition system, the airline was able to slash that to just three customer service lines.

British Airways began implementing the system in the fall of 2001; it was fully deployed by February 2002, and now handles approximately 12,000 customer calls per day.

By shifting calls away from human agents to the automated system, the company has reduced its cost-per-call from $3.00 to just $0.16.

British Airway's experience with speech recognition systems is not unique, according to John Dalton, a senior analyst with Forrester Research.

A number of companies are turning to speech recognition systems, he says, after being disappointed with the results of Web self-service and touch-tone IVR, or interactive voice response, applications. Users tend to drop out of those systems in high numbers, and then turn to the telephone to reach a live company representative. That drives up the overall cost of customer interactions, sometimes beyond what it would have cost to field the call with a live agent in the first place.

Speech recognition systems provide "a better user experience," Dalton says, "giving companies the opportunity to automate a tremendous volume of their interactions, and contain costs, without driving users crazy."