Utilities Power Efficiencies Through Speech Analytics

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Customer Experience
Customer Experience
While many customers are using newer means of communication, like social media, to interact with companies, speech remains an important channel that needs to be leveraged by companies to make sure they're delivering on customer experience.

Providing a great customer experience has become a main differentiator for organizations and the most forward-thinking companies are trying to make sure they use it to get an edge over their competition. This is especially important since customers will readily switch companies unless they get the experience they expect.

In fact, the 2011 Customer Experience Impact Report, carried out by Harris Interactive for RightNow, which has since been acquired by Oracle, found that not only are 86 percent of consumers willing to pay more for a better experience, but a staggering 89 percent will switch to a competitor following a poor experience.

This information should be keeping companies on their toes, always striving to deliver the best customer experience. However, in order to deliver optimal experiences, organizations first need to be able to identify first what customers expect and second, determine where the company is falling short. With many interactions still happening over the phone, savvy business leaders have recognized the importance of leveraging these communications and using them to make improvements to their organization.

In order to do this effectively, organizations are resorting to speech analytics. This allows them to identify problems early on, and, as Bruce Temkin, managing partner of the Temkin Group, notes, analyzing calls can help organizations understand their customers better. Further, it will help companies be more agile in spotting trends. Temkin says listening to a call and really understanding it gives much more information than relying solely on the notes captured by a contact center agent. Further, as Daniel Ziv, vice president of customer interaction analytics at Verint, points out, even short voice communications can hide a lot of information. "Voice is making a comeback," Ziv says. Not only are customers likely to give more detailed information and explain themselves better, but organizations can glean insights from the tone of voice, allowing business leaders to better understand the customer's frame of mind during the interaction, for example if there are changes following an agent's reply. "Text is often times piecemeal, and can be short or cryptic," Temkin says. And as Ziv explains, looking at both sides of the conversation gives a much better picture of the issue. "There is a great opportunity for richer content," Temkin says.

While financial institutions and telecommunications companies were at the forefront of using speech analytics, utilities companies have taken to using this tool to learn more about their customers and also identify problems before they spiral out of control. As Andre McInnes, director of product marketing at Allegiance, notes, utilities companies have a huge opportunity to mine contact center data, including speech, to identify systemic issues that can be addressed in order to decrease and improve the customer experience.

Utilities companies are often blamed for being reluctant to change, mostly because of the quasi monopolies they regularly enjoy, meaning that customers don't have as much freedom to switch. Yet, customers are no longer solely comparing brands with their competitors, but with companies which are renowned for delivering great customer experiences, like Amazon and Zappos. As McInnes points out, understanding the root cause of customers' calls will help increase efficiencies and cut costs associated with repeat calls or escalations. Additionally, deregulation is introducing previously nonexistent competition that is pushing utilities to consider the impact of their customer service.

A major benefit of speech analytics is that it flags all conversations within the parameters established by an organization. If, for example, the business is looking for interactions dealing with a particular complaint, rather than taking a random sample, business leaders will have access to each and every call, allowing them to get a better idea of the crux of the problem. For example, an organization might want to identify all calls in which complaints are resolved or ones where a customer requests to be escalated to a supervisor. "You don't have to hunt to find the call you're looking for," says Matt Storm, director for innovation and solutions, at NICE Systems.

As Ziv notes, analyzing the language allows business leaders to see the experience from a customer's point of view. For example, does the customer feel this is a repeat call even if the last interaction happened weeks before? "It's a way to measure the experience from the customer's perspective," he says.

Getting to the root of the problem

Speech analytics is crucial in helping organizations identify customer experience failures, but this should not be the ultimate goal. Experts believe that companies should be leveraging insights from speech analytics to get to identify the root of the problem and then address the issue, thus improving subsequent experience. "Companies can trace them back to their source, fix the root cause, and prevent it from happening again," notes Allegiance's McInnes.

According to Ziv, addressing the underlying problem proved very beneficial for a utilities company in Florida. This exercise allowed the firm to reduce total hold time by 29 percent, slash hold events by a third, and reduce repeat calls by 36 percent. Further, the company saw a decrease in language which reflected bad sentiment among customers.

One area in which utilities are using speech analytics is to determine problems with billing, NICE's Storm says. If, for example, a company receives numerous calls asking for clarification about the way taxes are being calculated, it can dig deeper into the bill format and alert the billing department to the problem with the ultimate goal to make the necessary changes and provide a better explanation. As Storm notes, even if this problem is behind a single digit percentage of calls, addressing it will have a big impact on the organization.

The Las Vegas Valley Water District, winner of the 2012 Gartner & 1to1 Media CRM Excellence Awards, is one utilities company that uses analytics to really understand the underlying issues behind contact center interactions. During the financial crisis, the company saw a spike in calls to its contact center and wanted to better understand the reason behind this increase to address the problem and also identify opportunities to improve processes efficiencies. As Penny Tootle, the company's customer service supervisor, notes, this would allow the Las Vegas Valley Water District to proactively help customers and reduce follow-up calls. Using voice and text analytics tools from NICE Systems, the company was able to listen to calls from customers who were surprised that they had their water cut off, including those with strong payment histories who simply needed some more time to make a payment.. This insight allowed the Las Vegas Valley Water District to start notifying delinquent customers before a shutoff, leading to more customers paying their bills and a decrease in service technicians being sent out to shut off and then restart services, which amounted to $3.6 million cost avoidance in just one year.

Identifying training needs

Savvy organizations are leveraging insights from speech analytics to identify training requirements, allowing them to tailor coaching to agents' needs and improve the customer experience. Because voice interactions give additional insight in terms of the tone of voice used, organizations can really pinpoint calls that started negatively and ended on a positive note, allowing them to delve deeply into the way agents handled those calls and using examples to showcase best practices.

McInnes notes that companies can leverage both positive and negative calls for training purposes, using the former to underline best practices and the latter to give agents examples of procedures or processes they should avoid. Temkin notes that since speech analytics helps organizations analyze an increased number of calls more quickly and in greater detail, companies can conduct more fast-paced and targeted training.

Organizations, especially the larger ones, might struggle to identify the shortcomings of each agent, notes David Gustafson, vice president of product management and marketing at Mattersight. Speech analytics allows these organizations to do just that, identifying where each agent is struggling and pinpointing training opportunities. Further, speech analytics solutions are also able to identify agent strengths and can help route calls according to these strong points.

A challenging process for utilities companies revolves around collections. Strom notes that the most forward-thinking organizations are using speech analytics to uncover best practices. The most successful agents are the ones who are able to convince customers about the sense of urgency and secure payment. Storm notes that speech analytics is being used to identify callers who had a good experience and to reiterate such practices across the board. Further, speech analytics can be used to identify what loopholes customers are using to dodge payment.

Chicago natural gas company Nicor, a subsidiary of AGL Resources, is one organization leveraging speech analytics. Apart from using speech analytics to identify the root causes of calls, McInnes notes that the organization is also using these insights to coach employees who work in the contact center so that they can better satisfy and retain customers. Further, since the company is selling ancillary products and services related to energy efficiency, insights from speech analytics is helping agents do a better selling job. This exercise has led to a 15 percent increase in conversion rates when offering these ancillary products over a 15-month period.

Finally, speech analytics has a valuable purpose within the IVR, allowing companies to identify callers and first try to help them to self-serve. If this isn't possible, the caller can be routed to the agent best equipped to address the customer's issue, saving time for both parties and improving the customer experience.

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EXPERT OPINION