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Why Siri is the Next Big Thing in Customer Support

A guest post by Software Advice analyst Ashley Furness

1st October 2012

The increasingly smartphone-equipped world has sparked a sea change in mobile customer service innovation. Inspired by the personal connection forged between Siri and her mobile users, developers have come out with new support apps that could forever change the contact center and service landscape.




"Steve Jobs – knowingly or not – identified a great opportunity for customer service with Siri, and we are only just now at the tipping point," says Andy Peart, chief marketing officer for Artificial Solutions, which develops Siri-like apps for customer service.

This opportunity is the company's ability to accomplish two things at once: provide human-like interactions with customers that don't involve additional payroll, and feed the consumer's need for an instant response. With speech, consumers get answers without cumbersome Web navigation or annoying phone trees. Plus, this conversational tone cultivates a feeling of closeness between consumers and the brand.

At least two companies have already capitalized on this market trend: SRI International (the company sold Siri to Apple) introduced Lola, and Nuance Communications (the most veteran speech recognition technology developer) released Nina just this summer. I spoke to both companies who told me we are only just now at the dawn of this new mobile customer service age.

So why has Siri made such an impact on the future of customer service now?

NLP and Speech Recognition is Better Than Ever

Natural Language Processing (NLP) allows these virtual agents to decipher meaning from the words interpreted by speech recognition technology. This is far beyond static Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR) systems that only respond to prompted questions asked in a very specific way. Advanced NLU technology remembers conversation context.

A banking customer could ask Lola for example, "What was my balance yesterday?" The NLP-enabled virtual assistant would recognize that "balance" refers to the dollar amount in the bank account and "yesterday" means to exclude transactions from today. It could also remember the context of conversation if the customer followed up with, "What about the day before?" The application would understand that the customer is still referring to their account balance, and that "the day before" means to exclude transactions from today and yesterday.

At the same time, speech recognition technology developed over years listening to landline customer service conversations has resulted in better language understanding than ever before. Nuance has millions of hours of speech recorded during customer conversations that it's learned from Siri and was the first to put these two technologies together in one comprehensive mobile experience.




We are a Smartphone Nation

Smartphones have become commonplace. More and more customers use their phones to access customer service, but they face two common annoyances. One, they have to type login information and search terms on a tiny keyboard. And two, they have to dig through FAQ or community forum pages to find the answer they are looking for.

Speech is the perfect vehicle for addressing both of these issues. Even though traditional customer service applications might only require tapping through a few pages, that's enough to stop many consumers conditioned for instant gratification.

"User experience is most natural when it uses what we've evolved over millions of years to perfect – language," says Norman Winarsky, Ph.D., vice president of SRI Ventures, the venture, license development, and commercialization arm of SRI International, which created Siri.

Powerful Phones, Apps Run from the Cloud

Modern mobile devices can run increasingly sophisticated applications faster than ever. At the same time, manufacturers have made it really simply for developers to make applications for myriad platforms. The Nina SDK, for example, can be built to any existing mobile application.

Also, now that developers can host data in the cloud, the phone doesn't have to carry all the application's technological muscle. This is particularly useful for speech recognition applications that require millions and millions of algorithms to interpret language.

Potential to Become the Support Channel of Choice

These technologies have clearly tapped into an unmet need in the customer service market: better, more enjoyable self service. Customers don't have to wade through frustrating IVRs, sit on hold, or fish through massive community forums. They get instant answers to their questions from a friendly, virtual agent that already knows everything about them.

Soon, customers will expect to talk to all of their devices in this way. Then, they won't ever have to learn how to use new technology. They will just tell the device what they want it to do.

Ashley Furness is a market analyst for research firm Software Advice.


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