How speech recognition software brings the conversation to consumers

James is editor in chief of TechForge Media, with a passion for how technologies influence business and several Mobile World Congress events under his belt. James has interviewed a variety of leading figures in his career, from former Mafia boss Michael Franzese, to Steve Wozniak, and Jean Michel Jarre. James can be found tweeting at @James_T_Bourne.

Automated phone lines have been infuriating customers for decades, the press is littered with horror stories of long wait times and customers trapped in an endless automated maze. For years app developers have been trying to solve this problem by creating a tool for consumers that is inherently simple but can process complex information succinctly.

The logical way of extending the user interface to achieve this goal is to create a tool that facilitates interaction around conversation. The human brain doesn’t store information in lists and menus, instead it works intuitively, acting and responding to situations.

Consumers have started to become more comfortable engaging with their mobile devices by voice for simple queries – the launch of Siri on the iPhone helped raise awareness for personal assistant technology, but now these now intelligent systems are becoming mainstream. Leading providers now offer voice enabled apps that provide everything from the chance to flick through emails, update your Facebook and even send messages on the go without compromising safety.

At the same time, consumer attention is shifting increasingly from web to mobile apps. The Tony Costa report, published in April this year for Forrester found that 77 per cent of mobile searches now occur either at home or at workplace, when a PC is available.

Meanwhile, customers are increasingly demanding natural and easy communication at their convenience. At Nuance we’ve noticed an increase in demand for self-service apps as personal assistant technology is better able to serve them whenever and wherever they want.  

For the travel, financial and telecoms industries, voice recognition technology allows brands to build and improve consumer relationships. Enterprises have previously invested vital human resources in tending to customers, but are now being encouraged to become more efficient and better use technology to alleviate HR and financial pressure.

Personal assistants can help to facilitate a broad range of complex transactions, ranging from paying a bill and adding a new service, to reducing the time it takes to deal with customer enquiries, therefore reducing cost.

In each of these sectors and others, personal assistants offer an alternative. By building a virtual assistant persona on a mobile app, companies can strengthen their brand image and identity through customer interactions alongside their conventional advertising.

Natural language processing means consumers can ask a complex set of questions in a variety of different ways and still be pointed in the right direction, speeding up the process of consumer interaction. Natural language processing works by recognising idioms and the words, followed by understanding the context in which they are used to disambiguate sentences and produce a comprehensible outcome.

This is crucial because not everyone says the same thing in the same way. People are able to construe the same meaning from many different words and phrases to translate a desired request into an operation. In practice natural language processing means a consumer could ask the same question of their device in a variety of ways, i.e. “show me my bank balance” or “let me know how much money I have left?” or even “am I broke?” and receive the same answer.

As the personal assistant interacts with the consumer, it builds up a knowledge base, so it doesn’t just remember conversations, but instead constructs intuitive relationships. When a personal assistant can process all this information succinctly and conveniently, it means brands can improve their relationship with customers, which goes a long way towards reinforcing their brand identity.

After all, when a conversation takes place, it’s not just the exchange of information, but the exchange of a personality. In TV and radio advertising, companies will often use a voice or a persona that they feel best communicates their brand personality – why should this not extend to customer service too?

In addition to reinforcing brand identity, personal assistants can also help to build consumer trust. For the travel, financial and telecoms industries, voice recognition provides one of the most secure identity authentication apps available. Voice biometrics allows consumers to remove passwords, replacing them with biometric scans of their voice, using a predefined pass or phrase so it’s difficult to forget.

Some companies are already using these tools with positive results. Nuance’s intelligent system Nina works alongside personal assistance systems that already exist on iOS and Android mobile, and can function across a broad range of sectors. Nina has been trialled in the States by USAA, a leading financial services provider that serves members of the U.S. military, veterans and their families.  

USAA has a reputation as an innovator and is known for bringing new banking technology to the market. Like many banks, its customers are busy and constantly on the go with little free time so they needed an app that would work intuitively and manage their finances with speed. Nina provided USAA with the opportunity, not only to reinforce its brand identity as an innovator but, also to boost the customer experience.

USAA customers have found that it reduces wait times because the personalised assistant already knows their details and is able to understand and respond to their needs immediately. Not only does Nina enhance consumer relationships but also establishes USAA’s reputation as a world leader in customer service in the retail finance industry.

Nina’s appeal is global, Turkish Bank Garanti integrated Nina into its iGaranti mobile banking app to provide its customers with a more compelling self-service banking experience. Garanti Bank’s customers can now simply speak to the virtual assistant using natural, conversational language to get their account balance or find ATMs nearby. Customers can also find out more about nearby shopping or savings offers, allowing them to move beyond simple, conventional, transactional banking to contextual banking that anticipates customer needs based on an awareness of their habits. The feedback from customers so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

Web based services are now available allowing businesses to use a text based virtual assistant as part of their web marketing, e-commerce and support applications, linking back-office functions to ensure they are consumer facing. Nina Web is available across platforms and services, offering natural language processing across 38 dialects, making it a useful tool for any global brand. Moreover, the benefits of this intuitive web based service mimic those available on mobile, namely an instinctive human presence that can convey the essence of an enterprise online.

The arrival of tools like Nina mark a new stage in the journey towards the development of intelligent personal assistants and is a vital step towards the long range vision of a solution that goes beyond just recognising speech, but that understands consumers and takes actions based on that understanding.

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