Voices That Give Cable Customer Service a Face

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Last month, Insight Communications Co.’s Louisville, Ky., system received telephone calls from about 5,200 subscribers who ultimately hung up without ever talking to a customer-service representative.

The subscribers weren’t disconnected, and they didn’t hang up out of frustration from being placed on hold.

Instead, 1,500 subscribers used the Louisville operation’s interactive voice response system to check their account balances; 1,300 callers confirmed a scheduled service appointment; and 2,400 customers paid their bill — all just by touching keys on their phones.

Insight’s efforts are part of a widespread trend at MSOs to engage customers with IVR systems. The automated, touch-key approach, which can force subscribers to surf through an extended series of menu options before they get the information or service they’re seeking, is viewed as an annoyance by some customers. But to hear proponents, it’s saving operators millions of dollars in overhead and increasing customer satisfaction. In fact, the technology “solution” is apparently so effective that there’s little movement by operators to take their systems one step further and add voice-recognition technology.

Steve Chirokas, director of product marketing at Convergys Inc., a supplier of IVR technology, says operators that use IVR systems to allow customers to check account balances alone can reduce average call times from more than four minutes to less than a minute and a half.

“It’s millions of dollars in savings,” Chirokas says. “But it’s not just the savings; it’s higher customer satisfaction.”

Convergys research has found that the average cable subscriber calls their local operator at least two times per month, and that balance inquiries were the most common motivation for the call, followed by customers that call to pay their bill or report technical problems.

Insight offers some other numbers that put IVRs in perspective: About 20% of the calls that Insight’s Louisville system receives each month are handled entirely by the IVR system, says Insight regional director of customer service Jeff Seidenfaden. The company’s goal is to handle 25% of all calls through the IVR system, he adds.

Comcast Corp. is also a proponent of IVR systems. “It’s just one piece of our commitment to make it as easy as possible to do business with us, whether it’s by phone or live in person,” says Comcast vice president of customer service Tina Waters.

Subscribers that call any Comcast system nationwide are greeted by the same female voice, and they’re then prompted to navigate a menu of options with keys on their phones. Most Comcast subscribers use the systems to check account balances or pay their bills, Waters says.

West Corp. supplies the IVR system that Comcast uses for its video and high-speed data products. IP Unity Inc. supplies the IVR that is deployed on Comcast’s voice over Internet protocol telephone system trials.

Chirokas says the next wave of IVR systems will rely on “natural language understanding” technology. It will allow callers to speak to a computerized voice, just as they would a live CSR. These systems recognize key words uttered by subscribers and direct the call to the appropriate department, Chirokas says.

But there are some limits to IVR systems. For example, Chirokas says operators may always prefer to use live customer service representatives to cross sell or up-sell new products to existing customers that call their local systems.

So far, MSOs haven’t shown overwhelming enthusiasm for the technical upgrades that voice recognition requires. “We’re really looking at fully deploying the more interactive features before we move to something more advanced like voice recognition,” says Insight’s Seidenfaden.

Comcast currently doesn’t have plans to add voice recognition technology to the IVR systems, says Waters. Comcast conducts 10,000 interviews with subscribers each month, and those customers haven’t requested that the company incorporate voice recognition, she adds.

Some executives say that other industries that have already embraced voice recognition systems — such as airlines and financial services firms — are better suited to that form of technology.

“The airline industry is dealing with a more well-defined set of issues and a more sophisticated consumer who can tolerate [voice recognition],” says IP Unity CEO Arun Sobti, whose company also supplies IVR systems to Cablevision Systems Corp. for its VoIP rollout.

“My personal opinion is Johnny Six-Pack today is not going to be too thrilled with interactive voice response as much as a frequent flier, who appreciates that it’s going to have to be this way,” Sobti adds.