By JOE LIGHT
After forcing callers into automated customer-service lines, some companies are trying to sweeten the experience—by making the recorded voices less annoying.
CREDIT: Kendrick Brinson/LUCEO The Wall Street Journal
AFLAC call center employee Andrea Bentley answered a customer call in Columbus, Ga., last month.
Companies say nicer and more-competent sounding voices can prompt fewer callers to speak to a live agent, saving money on staffing. It’s also an inexpensive bid to boost corporate image, and reflects the kind of tweaks some companies are making while still cautious on big investments.
GM Voices Inc., a company that records the voices on automated customer service systems, says the amount of business it brings in from large corporations has increased 17% in the last year, according to Chief Executive Marcus Graham.
A typical customer service call that reaches an agent costs companies $3 to $9 depending on the industry, says Melanie Polkosky, a psychologist for International Business Machines Corp. who helps design automated customer-service systems. A call that’s handled through the automated system only costs five to seven cents.
But some customers immediately hit ‘0’ before trying out new systems. “We’re fighting 20 years of bad customer service. A lot of callers have just given up on trying to engage,” said David Martin, who helps implement new systems for Basking Ridge, N.J.-based Avaya Inc.
Some companies are trying to reverse that. Insurer Aflac Inc. replaced the voice on its customer service line in July. Previously, the quality of the voices varied. Company officials think that led some callers to opt to go straight to a customer service rep, said Virgil Miller, Aflac vice president of client services.
“Our brand is warm and conversational, but the voice was cold and inconsistent,” he said.
Aflac hoped to find a voice that evoked a homey, family image. After auditioning dozens of voice actors for the role, Aflac settled on a middle-aged female voice actress that they thought could lower the stress level of callers needing to make a claim, Mr. Miller said.
“It’s a stereotype, but if you think of a woman with a Midwestern voice, you think family,” he says.
Aflac is expecting to take 11.5 million calls this year, up from 11 million last year, but this year it has 3% fewer customer-service reps. Mr. Miller says the company believes that’s partly because the better voice means fewer customers are opting to speak with a live agent.
“More customers are willing to give technology a chance if you can make the automated system pleasant for them,” said Mr. Miller. Productivity gains in customer-service centers have helped too, he notes.
Aflac thinks the voice has improved customer satisfaction with the system. The company surveyed about 200 callers in April, before the change, and in August. It found that overall customer satisfaction had risen about 7% with the new voice. In total, the project cost more than $8,000, said Mr. Miller.
Nashville-based insurer Asurion Inc., which covers cellphones for loss or damage not covered by warranties, implemented a new voice on its system last year, and expanded it to other parts of its customer-service line through this summer.
Company officials thought the old voice and script didn’t sound concerned to callers, many of whom were calling about a lost or broken cellphone.
“We spend a lot of time training our customer service representatives to be empathetic, but the old voice didn’t embody that,” said Asurion senior director Tracey Strassner.
The company coached the new voice actress to inflect her voice in the same way that an experienced customer-service representative would and rewrote her script to sound similar to a live agent.
At the beginning of the call, for example, the automated system tells the caller how many questions it will ask. “It’s important to give them a light at the end of the tunnel,” Ms. Strassner said.
Since the change, customer satisfaction with its automated system has increased between 5% and 10% and more customers are using the technology before being transferred to a live agent, which cuts down on call time, according to the company.