Nik Philpot: My business week

The chief executive of speech recognition company Eckoh sees changes afoot in his industry
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The Independent Online

A living room in a very British household. A husband and wife settle down to watch television after finally getting their three kids to bed. The phone rings.

"Who can that be?" asks the wife.

"Probably someone in India who says they can save us money," says the husband.

The scene is fictional – from a BBC sitcom – but it speaks to the growing disaffection with offshore call centres, which presents a conundrum for UK companies.

There is growing evidence that the public is fed up with poor offshore service and that many companies are bringing those activities back to the UK. But the economics that drove the rush to off-shoring still hold. It is estimated that operating costs abroad are 40 per cent lower than in the UK.

It is, in part, this financial balancing act that is persuading companies to seek an automated alternative to offshoring. Of course, speech recognition services have not always enjoyed a good reputation, but when set up well, automation can be highly effective.

Achieving high service levels involves the system recognising a caller and presenting personalised options. Crucially, it must understand the limits of its own effectiveness, and when to revert the call to a human being.

And that is the key: providing the appropriate mix of human and automated service. A customer calling to check stock prices can be quickly served and be comfortable with automation. But someone looking to invest £100,000 will want to speak to an operator.

According to a global study by Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, 62 per cent of companies using speech-based self-service say customer satisfaction has increased within 12 months of implementation. With a proposition as compelling as that, the long-distance call to Bangalore could become an endangered species.