Faster information for call centres

09/22/04

Author: DUNCAN GRAHAM-ROWE PHONE a call centre and you are likely to spend ages on hold listening to canned music- and then find the operator can't find the information you need. But an artificial intelligence system that hunts down the required information is aiming to slash the time people waste this way. Using a mixture of speech recognition and search engine technology, the system, being developed by IBM, will trawl a call centre's databanks for the information a customer wants and present it to the operator before the caller has finished explaining what they want. By giving operators rapid access to the right information, calls will be dealt with faster. The system works by listening in to the conversation and identifying keywords spoken by the customer. It then flashes up the most relevant information it can find onto the operator's screen. IBM project leader Johan Schuurmans says an early version of the system allowed calls to be handled about 20 per cent faster than normal. Call centres often take calls for several clients, perhaps an energy company, a bank and an insurance business. Each operator may have as many as 10,000 pages of product data to choose from. Koen Wolters, a computer scientist at the University of Twente in the Netherlands who helped develop the system, says finding the right page to match a customer's query can be tough, and the caller frequently has to be put on hold while the operator searches for the relevant information. For instance, the AI system will recognise words such as "mortgage", "repayment" and "interest" and enter them into a search engine dedicated to the call centre's network. In this case it would retrieve those pages concerning options on interest rates for repayment mortgages.

The speech recognition system can also be used to remind the operator of any aspects of the product that they are legally required to warn the customer about- that not keeping up payments on a mortgage could lead to the loss of the customer's home, for example. If the system does not "hear" the keywords of that warning the operator will receive a sharp on-screen reminder before the call ends. The prototype version of the system can search for only a handful of phrases and works only on a PC. But the first commercial version, which will go on trial at a Dutch bank later this month, will be able to detect 1000 keywords and will operate on the centre's network server. However, the technology- if it proves itself in the Dutch trial- could also have a downside that consumers may find less welcome: faster access to sales information will give the call centres the ability to make a much harder sell.

In the same way that the system reminds the operator to warn the customer, it will also remind them to "upsell" on behalf of the client- convincing the caller that there are better deals to be had by paying a little more. "It will certainly give a better focus on upselling opportunities," agrees IBM. So watch out for the techno-assisted hard sell. This article appears in New Scientist issue: 25 September 2004

Source: Eurekalert & others

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