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Maura K. Ammenheuser
Maura K. Ammenheuser
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Banks Hear Customers Loud and Clear

By leveraging speech technologies, banks are improving customer service and cutting costs.

There's a lot of talk going around the banking industry these days. To improve customer service, banks are increasingly turning to speech-based technology.

For years, banks have relied on call centers to handle consumers' questions. Automated touchtone phone systems have typically been the link between the public and the call center. But several industry experts say the familiar touchtone systems may soon go the way of the rotary phone.

Today, speech-enabled technology - often called IVR, for interactive voice response - has finally improved to the point where banks can use it enterprisewide for an array of functions. "I suspect over the next two to three years this will start to proliferate," says Diane Halliwell, director of contact center solutions for Align Communications, a global IT firm headquartered in New York. "Done right, these things can really enhance your business."

Many banks already use speech technology for call steering, says Peter Ryan, an analyst with London-based business information firm Datamonitor. A voice-enabled automated call system determines customers' needs through voice prompts and quickly routes calls to the appropriate personnel.

A good system lets callers skip many of the prompts they typically encounter with a touchtone system before getting to the point where they need to be, Halliwell notes. A voice-based solution helps callers complete their business faster, which in turn increases customer satisfaction, she says.

Soon, Datamonitor's Ryan predicts, banks also will begin relying on speech technology for more than call steering, allowing customers to access accounts, transfer funds, pay bills and more. "Whatever a customer can do on the Web, they should be able to do on the phone," he asserts. Additionally, Ryan continues, "Using biometric voice prints as a security means for accessing accounts ... is also a strong possibility," though he stresses that the technology must gain a proven track record before banks will rely upon it for identification purposes.

Benefits Speak Volumes

While its potential in other areas remains largely untapped, the No. 1 benefit speech technology offers banks today is improved customer service. "Speech technology offers financial institutions the ability to provide customers with greater interaction and ease of use," Ryan says. For example, speech systems don't require people to spell names on the touchtone pad. "Callers can interact directly with the interface in their own vocabulary and at their own pace. This increases customer satisfaction and long-term customer loyalty," he says.

Voice-based technology also means cost savings for the bank, according to Align's Halliwell. The automation frees bank employees from routine matters and, by shortening calls, saves money on 800-number lines, she says.

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