What Customers Say And How They Say It

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Consumers have the space program to thank for smoke detectors, invisible orthodontic braces and football helmet padding. One day, they may thank the security and intelligence-gathering industry for better customer service.

Over the past several years, technology designed for eavesdropping has found a new home in corporate call centers, recording and analyzing millions of phone conversations between customer service agents and consumers in an effort to better digest and organize what customers are saying.

Forrester Research estimates that annual sales of the emerging technology, known as "speech analytics" and "emotion detection," amounts to about $400 million and growing.

The building blocks of speech analytics have been around for about eight years, said Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting LLC in West Orange, N.J. They can be found in automated phone trees and in "Julie," Amtrak's automated reservations agent.

Emotion detection, which tracks volume and pitch, grew out of voice verification technology, Fluss said.

The technology enabled FedEx, for example, to search calls from customers for the word "wow" to suss out really good, as well as really bad, customer experiences.

Every speech analytic and emotion detection system is slightly different, but the same basic features apply. They all record and transcribe conversations and categorize them by words and phrases.

Wisconsin Physicians Service, a health insurance provider, searched its phone calls for "Medicare" combined with "confused" to find calls from seniors who were having trouble understanding the new Medicare prescription plans.

More-subtle systems are designed to understand that "this is the last straw" means the caller wants to bolt, said Roger Woolley, vice president of marketing for eTalk, of Irving, Tex., one of several companies selling speech analytic software.

Some programs combine word searches with emotion detection. NICE Systems spent tens of millions of dollars developing algorithms that measure a baseline of emotion in the first few seconds of a phone call. If the customer's voice deviates from that baseline, a supervisor is alerted.

Companies want to dig deeper into calls in response to the "super-empowered angry customer," said Keith Dawson, editorial director of Call Center Magazine.

"The Internet gives you the ability to amplify your anger or distaste. It is evening out the playing field, and some companies are getting caught short," Dawson said. Now they're trying "to better understand consumers on an individual basis, and . . . what is motivating each one."

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