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Language (not Speech) in the Contact Center

There is a fair amount of buzz around the use of natural language speech recognition and speech analytics in the contact center. Speech recognition technology has gotten really good, evidenced most recently in the dictation capability of the new iPad. But as I learned when demonstrating the capability to a colleague, someone with just the slightest accent has a completely different (i.e., negative) experience using the same application.

This interaction with a colleague and the iPad dovetails with some work I recently did with Language Line Services, a company that offers real-time interpretation and other translation services. The convergence of a global marketplace and home markets populated with an increasing number of affluent and educated immigrants creates both an opportunity and a potential challenge for businesses.

Federal, state and local government agencies have already taken steps to address the issue, often driven by legislation. Most companies in the private sector, however, have not focused on strategies for providing an optimal customer experience to limited English speakers. Companies may be able to find someone in-house to address the needs of a Spanish speaking customer, perhaps even French. But what if that caller speaks Vietnamese? Or Tagalog? What happens if a customer who is more comfortable conducting a transaction in Arabic walks into a retail branch? How can business provide a positive customer experience for limited-English-proficient individuals?

Thirty years ago, what is now Language Line Services started as a business within AT&T (I was at AT&T at the time and a close friend moved to the business). In the intervening years, they have become the de facto standard for interpretation services, used most often in government applications (e.g., 911) and financial services. The company believes there is a broader opportunity in all verticals to market to an audience they may not have been adequately serving in the past. Language Line Services asked me to talk to some of their existing customers to explore the benefits they get by providing an interpretation service.

The companies I spoke to primarily use Language Line Services when someone calls into the contact center and either self-identifies as requiring language assistance or the agent decides he/she needs help. One of the banks I interviewed, with thousands of branches in the U.S., sees the value of the interpretation service in better retention, and is planning an intriguing pilot. To better support walk-in customers that have limited English, the bank will install a dual handset phone, like the one pictured. It will facilitate 3-way conversations among an interpreter from a Language Line Services contact center, bank branch personnel and the limited-English customer. In a market that increasingly questions the value of desk telephones (see this recent No Jitter post by Phil Edholm), it's nice to see an application for a new kind of phone.

Contact centers have dozens of ways to measure and track how well automated systems are doing at understanding and serving customers. How well live agents are doing at serving limited-English speakers may be worthy of a little investigation as well.